An Aspen tale of two willful interpreters, Jeremy Denk succeeds better than Vadim Gluzman

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival 2022 [6]: Harris Hall, Aspen, Colorado. (HS)

Jeremy Denk

19.7.2022: Recital: Vadim Gluzman (violin), William Wolfram (piano).

StravinskySuite italienne
Franck – Violin Sonata in A major, M.8
Valentin Silvestrov – Five Pieces for Violin and Piano
RavelTzigane, rapsodie de concert

20.7.2022: Recital: Jeremy Denk (piano).

J. S. Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I

Musicians in two successive recitals at the Aspen Music Festival this week put their own spins on familiar music, and the results could not have been more different. On Wednesday, Jeremy Denk succeeded in breathing the variety of life into one of J. S. Bach’s great keyboard works. Tuesday, violinist Vladimir Gluzman manhandled music by Stravinsky, Franck and Ravel. Both, of course, got standing ovations.

Denk stepped in on short notice for German pianist Martin Helmchen, the second international artist in the past week who canceled an appearance here because of a delayed visa. Helmchen had included two Bach partitas on his program, but Denk took on an even bigger challenge – Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. His atmospheric playing, humor and a distinctly high level of musicianship shaped this monumental work into something even more special.

Denk is a thinker. He expounds on every aspect of music in major publications and now in Every Good Boy Does Fine, a remarkably accessible new book that’s secretly about what musicians want to communicate. Although other pianists may flaunt greater technique than Denk’s, he is amply accomplished to cast music he cares about in a fresh and vibrant light.

Bach wrote this collection of 24 preludes and fugues, one for each major and minor key, as exercises for harpsichord players. A modern piano’s dynamic range and flexibility allow Denk to shape a style that feels both modern and classic at the same time. It may not be what other pianists present in this music, but that’s the point.

Not for Denk the willfully insistent tempos and Old Testament gravitas of Glenn Gould, nor András Schiff’s tender, deferential modesty, or even Angela Hewitt’s freewheeling flow, to name just a few of the great interpreters of this music. Denk seeks, and finds, a specific mood for each prelude and its accompanying fugue. One could easily imagine Bach appreciating all of it.

In the oh-so-familiar first Prelude in C major, he floated the arpeggios’ ever-shifting harmonies serenely, making sure each note got its due rather than eliding them all under the pedal. When a chord ached to resolve, Denk let it hang there an extra split-second to relish Bach’s harmonies, unusually colorful for the Baroque era. The Prelude in C minor, expressive and much freer, raced ahead with its broken chords and rapid flourishes, and the fugue began like a dance with its rhythmic figures lilting gently, alternating between crisp staccato articulation and touches of supple legato until they slid smoothly into a final C-major chord with a sly smile.

So it went, with the preludes shamelessly displaying their individuality, the fugues ranging from slow, somber, minor-key seriousness to bouncy, exuberant races at a finger-busting rapid clip. Through it all, the lead voice always emerged with just enough emphasis. If Denk wanted us to have something fresh to chew on, he never got in the way of Bach’s intentions – at heart, both theatrical and utterly rational.

Denk responds to the music as he is playing it, much like a jazz artist. Much of it even sounded improvised Wednesday, his interpretations seeming to bubble up on the spot. When, as an encore, Denk reprised the C major prelude that began the evening, he played it with less hesitance this time, more assured yet still serene, a perfect ending.

To be fair, violinist Vadim Gluzman’s recital on Tuesday did conjure up a few minutes of simple magic with Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s introverted Five Pieces for Violin and Piano. For 18 sweet minutes, the Ukrainian-born Israeli made his 1690 ‘ex-Leopold Auer’ Stradivari fiddle sing eloquently, with grace and refinement, as pianist William Wolfram framed the music deftly.

This music breathed, an element that was in short supply from the big, broad, extroverted music on the rest of the program.

Stravinsky’s Suite italienne, the composer’s arrangement of neo-classical music from his ballet Pulcinella, lurched from phrase to phrase with little space to let the subtleties come through. In his Violin Sonata in A major, the Romantic era composer Franck tried to make the duo sound like a whole orchestra, but this steamroller of a performance missed opportunities for respite in quiet moments. Ravel’s Tzigane, rapsodie de concert, a staple of show-off violinists everywhere, revved up so much momentum that there was little room for its delicate subtleties to create a needed balance. It was exhausting rather than exhilarating.

Harvey Steiman

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