Jeremy Denk’s sensational Lammermuir recital on historic day 

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lammermuir Festival 2022 [1] – Jeremy Denk in Recital: Jeremy Denk (piano). Dunbar Parish Church, Dunbar, 8.9.2022. (BBS)

Jeremy Denk © Robin Mitchell

Mozart – Piano Sonata in A minor, K310
Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit
Bach – Toccata in F sharp minor, BWV 910
Missy Mazzoli – Heartbreaker
Ligeti – The Devil’s Staircase
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in E major, Op.109

None of us in the large audience at Dunbar Parish Church, on this bleak September day, could have been aware that the second Elizabethan Age was about to end, with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II at Balmoral. I must be one of the oldest people in Britain never to have known a King, since, being born in 1955, I have lived through nearly all of the Queen’s reign. It is slightly surreal this morning to be typing this review, having opened my browser to read of a statement by King Charles III. In a spirit of celebration of a fine life well lived, let us dedicate this review to the Queen, who of course, was not at all a fan of classical music, but had to spend a lot of her long life listening to it.

The American pianist, Jeremy Denk, appeared at last year’s Lammermuir Festival to great acclaim, and I looked forward to his recital in Dunbar Parish Church, a venue I had never visited. The church was destroyed by fire in 1987, and completely restored to its dominant position overlooking the North Sea, re-opening in 1991. It is a terrific concert venue, with excellent acoustics and good sight lines, and was pretty full for the afternoon recital. Denk has been establishing a career both in the USA and in Britain, and it was clear from the very beginning that we were in for a treat.

Casually dressed and with the look of a cross between Paul Simon and Billy Joel, he introduced each piece in a cool and quirky way, which immediately endeared him to me, and to the rest of the audience. His playing reinforced this style, with looks to the audience on occasion, as if to draw us into his performance, something I liked, but which made my wife a little uncomfortable. Chacun à son goût!

The recital began with an unusual Mozart sonata, the A Minor, K 310, written by the 22-year-old composer, just after his mother had died. It is full of chromatic quirks and occasional outbursts of anger, as if the young Mozart was trying to come to terms with his mother’s death. Denk played with a sensitivity which was most endearing, bringing out all the colours of the fine modern piano he was playing, in comparison to the fortepiano that Mozart was writing for.

The second piece in the first half was Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel, written in 1908. This is a work based on some poems by Aloysius Bertrand, invoking visions of the underworld, devilry and Hell itself, but all set within a certain Gallic ironie, which allows a smile to break through, especially at the end.

The first section, ‘Ondine’, tells of a water nymph, Undine, who seduces men to their doom under the calm waters of a lake, cue fantastic Ravel water music, played sensationally by Denk. The second section, ‘Le Gibet’, portrays a hanged man slowly rotting in the desert sun, with a church bell tolling throughout, an apparently horrible, macabre vision rendered calm and serene by the endlessly playing B flat octave ostinato of the bell.

The final section, ‘Scarbo’ tells of a mischievous goblin and his nocturnal tricks and devilry and is recognised as one of the most difficult pieces of piano music ever written. Denk was absolutely mesmerising in his playing here, some of the finest technical pianism I have heard, infused also with a great sense of humour. Indeed, as he mugged away at the keyboard, creating pregnant pauses and mercurial wizardry, it was amusing to watch most of the audience in glacial ‘concert mode’, unable or unwilling to allow themselves to be led into the music. This is a perennial problem with classical audiences, who are determined to find it all very serious, even when everything they are hearing is full of humour and fun.

For this reason, I am all in favour of players interacting with an audience (within certain boundaries), like Jeremy Denk, or Richard Egarr at the Edinburgh Festival.

After the interval, he was at it again, explaining the creation of Bach’s Toccatas, and pointing out the humour, even in JSB, of the composer’s intricate invention. It was interesting to hear Bach played on a modern piano, as Denk said. He has been working on recordings of Bach, and the almost limitless invention of the seventeenth-century master never ceases to amaze.

Denk then played an extraordinary piece by Ligeti, The Devil’s Staircase, a musical work attempting to mirror the endless staircases of Maurits Escher, another technical piece of extreme virtuosity with a quirky undertone of devilment. The pianist is trapped in a loop, endlessly forced to climb with no hope of reaching the top, getting louder and louder in his fruitless journey (reaching a marking of ffffffff at one point). Since there is no conclusion, there is no final cadence, and the pianist is left to hold a chord on the pedal until it stretches into silence. Astonishing! Heartbreaker by Missy Mazzoli followed, another exercise in virtuosity, written in 2013.

Finally, in a sort of feverish equivalent to an ice bath, Jeremy Denk played Beethoven’s latish sonata, Op.109 in E Major, in no way one of the starry and famous ones, and actually, rather a good way to end such a spectacular display of concentrated playing. The Beethoven was a welcome respite, after Denk’s earlier pieces. After understandable recourse to the scores of the Ligeti and Mazzoli, with Artistic Director James Waters acting as iPad presser (the role previously known as page-turner), Denk returned to his full-on solo persona, playing from memory this last part of the programme.

It was certainly an ambitious and challenging programme but brought to a magnificent conclusion by an absolute master of his instrument. We were rewarded with a Brahms Intermezzo as an encore, a delicious snippet of mid-nineteenth century romanticism.

Brian Bannatyne-Scott

Previously published by Edinburgh Music Review. Click here for a review on EMF of the recent Songs of a Celtic Age concert with Brian Bannatyne-Scott (bass), Beth Taylor (mezzo-soprano) and accompanied by pianist Hamish Brown.

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