Jeremy Denk Illuminates All of Western Musical History for Today’s Listeners


United StatesUnited States Various Composers: Jeremy Denk (piano). Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 20.1.2017. (BJ)

A Jeremy Denk recital these days is apt to depart from the traditional recital format. This one under the auspices of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society departed more radically than ever from that model. I have refrained from listing the works played in the heading to this review, because there were no fewer than 25 of them, and the significance of such a list would convey little of substance to the reader. The point that should be emphasized is that the pianist’s intent here was to offer a conspectus of nothing less than the history of Western music, beginning from Guillaume de Machaut in the 14th century and stretching as far as Ligeti, Stockhausen, and Philip Glass, with a nod back to Gilles Binchois to round things off.

The sheer intellectual grasp evidenced by holding all these disparate works – and styles – firmly in his head confirmed Denk’s stature as a thinker, and the unfailing clarity and indeed beauty of the performances similarly spoke for his artistic gift. In the latter regard, Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue was interpreted with such a combination of insight, rhetoric, and poetry as I have rarely heard accorded it. Similarly, the Andante of Mozart’s C-major Sonata, K.545; the first movement of Beethoven’s Op.10 No.1; and examples of the solo works of Chopin (two of the Op.28 Preludes), Liszt (his arrangement of Isolde’s Liebestod), and Brahms (the intermezzo Op.119 No.1) further confirmed a level of mastery to match any you are likely to encounter in the musical world of today.

You may notice that the works I have chosen to single out for comment all come from the 18th and 19th centuries. I have never subscribed to the sort of progressivist view of music history that sees later developments in the guise of improvements on what was done before. But it was illuminating on this occasion to observe that only after the pieces by Machaut, Binchois, Ockeghem, Du Fay, and Josquin had been heard – with the program’s arrival at such figures as Janequin, Byrd, Gesualdo, and Monteverdi – that any strong sense of individual personality began to emerge, and to be intensified further when we reached Purcell, Scarlatti, and Bach. That, I hasten to say, in no important way confirms a progressivist view: from Machaut to Josquin, the earlier composers’ aims were quite different from those of the later ones – more abstract, and surely free from such autobiographical intentions as came to dominate the music of the 19th century.

This perception itself was, I am sure, for many members of the clearly enthralled audience, amply worth the price of admission. Many recitals take us back in atmosphere to an essentially 19th-century world. It takes a Jeremy Denk to transport us, despite all the very old music on this evening, to an artistic experience that makes a wholly new sense of our listening habits.

Bernard Jacobson

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