An Exploration of Time from the Always-Insightful Denk

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Prokofiev, Beethoven, Schumann: Jeremy Denk (piano), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 3.12.2017. (ZC)

Mozart – Rondo in A Minor, K.511
ProkofievVisions fugitives, Op.22
Beethoven – Sonata for Piano No.30 in E, Op.109
Schumann – Symphonic Etudes, Op.13

Wedged within a corner of the country, Seattle is an unlikely place for a career to incubate. Geographically, the Emerald City is distant from the traditional culture capitals of the United States. Even its closest domestic peers and rivals—San Francisco and Los Angeles—are hundreds of miles away and more readily come to mind as centers of artistic talent.

Yet Seattle punches above its weight as a nurturing nest of artistic talent, due in large part to the city’s strong summer chamber music festival. Seattle audiences have witnessed the emergence of a number of classical music’s most talented performers—both nationally and internationally. Perhaps the Emerald City’s artistic peers are not San Francisco or Los Angeles, but other cities in forgotten nooks of their respective realms, like Perth in Australia or Winnipeg, Manitoba. These are cities which bucked the trend of geographic isolation or cultural bias to become think tanks of artistic innovation.

In any case, to argue for Seattle’s position as an incubator of classical talent, a key exhibit must be Jeremy Denk. Seattle’s summer festival was a fixture of Denk’s early years. Over multiple weeks each summer, the pianist would dazzle Puget Sound audiences with his insights, which usually led listeners to deepen their intimacy with familiar works. Seattle has remained a regular stop for Denk as his career has progressed, even if the number of his concerts has decreased due to demand elsewhere. In the 2017-2018 season, Denk will return several times to appear with the Seattle Symphony.

Denk’s solo recitals teem with revelations big and small. Interpretation for him is a dynamic event—continuously unfolding. Thus, interpretations of the same pieces vary dramatically year to year, venue to venue. When Denk was absorbed with Ives, I heard him play the first sonata twice. His Seattle reading was infused with Romantic effects and softer edges. A few months later in New York, in the same sonata, the pianist shone a light on more contemporary sensibilities: Once-smooth passages became jagged, and lugubrious phrases had turned stark. As always, hearing Denk perform live is to witness his deeply personal and conscientious music making.

In brief comments before the start of Sunday’s recital, Denk explained that the first half was a survey of how three composers confront time—treating it as an element that is fleeting, persistent, and even malleable. Mozart’s late Rondo in A minor opened the recital, with the composer’s unusually melancholic chromaticism foreshadowing Chopin, while impressing listeners with its complex structure. Each of its five sections divides the beat into smaller and smaller slices, as if to remind listeners that time is finite. But with each return to the Rondo’s main theme, Mozart seems to say that time is also cyclical—in the end returning to where it began.

Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, a series of early keyboard miniatures, have their own complex relationship with time. None of the 20 pieces lasts longer than a few minutes—some just 20 or 30 seconds—but these vignettes are fully formed thoughts, each with the resonance and presence of an intense conversation with an intimate friend. Denk infused every aspect with flowing lyricism, and maintained a compelling, rich line through each fragment. Ultimately he assembled the young composer’s otherwise disparate movements into an eloquent statement of textured immediacy.

To conclude the first half, Denk easily mastered the conflicting moods of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109. The first movement’s shift between its bubbly, familiar opening to a drawn-out rumination has never seemed more natural. Denk embraced Beethoven’s stormy conflict in the second movement, driving it to a brusque, unsettling conclusion, and in the finale, the pianist caressed each variation, for a distinct, eternal quality.

The afternoon ended with Robert Schumann’s thundering Symphonic Etudes, and though not as evocative as the first half, each variation tested the limits of Denk’s virtuosic gifts. Denk plunged his hands, fingers, and heart into the composer’s treacherous passages to scintillating effect.

Next March, Denk returns to Seattle for Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto and a chamber recital with Seattle Symphony musicians. In April, he joins the orchestra for its tour of California and Nevada, in concerts that will undoubtedly be memorable experiences. To our good fortune, this artist continues to return to our nurturing—and appreciative—corner of the American realm.

Zach Carstensen

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