American Concert Pianist, Steinway Artist, Susan Merdinger

Perfect Pianissimo: Jeremy Denk in Recital At Symphony Center

Sunday afternoon proved to be a challenging time to give a piano recital- a glorious, beautiful day, following a week of the most historic and tumultuous Presidential Election in recent times. Jeremy Denk's recital proved to be at times challenge for both him and the audience, with varying degrees of success. Denk presented a most interesting and engaging recital program, of choice standard repertoire more memorably complemented by some unusual fare.

His program opened with the famous Mozart Sonata in A minor, K. 310. Angry and defiant and somewhat mournfully eloquent, this sonata proved to be a fitting opener, However, it was not Mozart as we know it. Denk feel prey to his emotions and did not display his best during this opener. His playing was dominated by an overly heavy left-hand which often obscured the melody of the right hand and what should have been sparkling sixteenth note passage work. Additionally, excessive pedalling, and most annoyingly, an excessive sense of rubato and romantic gesturing too often made one feel as though he was playing a work by Schumann or Chopin- not Mozart. Added to this was a basically thin and bright tone which was possibly an effect of the angular theme and the A minor tonality.  In this work, the second movement fared the best- with Denk proving himself quite capable of a lovely, singing piano tone and phrasing which was appropriate to the "Classical Style". I think it was Artur Rubinstein who once advised that a pianist should play Chopin like Mozart, and Mozart like Chopin, but in my opinion, Denk got carried away to such an extreme that it would have to be considered offensive to the ears of any music scholar, piano pedagogue or pianophile. In short, if you want to hear great Mozart- stick with Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia, Alfred Brendel, Rudolf Buchbinder or Mitsuko Uchida. All this being said, this listener nonetheless found Denk's obvious passion and personality engaging enough to make me eager to hear what he would do with the rest of his program.

The second part of the first half of his program was supposed to be John Adams's PhrygianGates. But, due to events beyond his control, Mr. Denk chose to make a substitution of a self-created suite of short works inspired by his upcoming recording project entitled "From Medieval to Modern". This program change proved to be fortuitous bonus for the audience. In this self-constructed suite of seven pieces by Joplin, Stravinsky, Byrd, Hinedemith, Bolcom, Nancarrow, and Lambert, Mr. Denk most deftly showcased his original programming ideas and conception in works which highlighted his subtle touch, and intellectual approach to music. What was especially nice was his insertion of brief commentary and demonstration of the works prior to the performance of them- which was most welcome, since there were no program notes at all. During his short discussion, Denk proved to be both pithy, and humorous, and quite entertaining and informative and this only further helped the audience to appreciate these works which he claimed were connected by virtue of them featuring syncopation. This listener discovered other elements which connected these oddly assorted works in a most pleasing way- several pieces ending on a single note, for example, and alternating fast and furious with the more delicate, slower-paced works also contributed to the enjoyment of these works. Special standout amongst this set of pieces were his Byrd " The Passinge Mesures: The Nynthe Pavian" in which the fillgree of variations on a theme demonstrated great finger technique and lightness of touch. The Stravinsky enabled Denk to show off some humor- both in his comments and his execution of the piece. The Hindemith was discordant, rhythmic and loud, and the least pleasing of the works. The Bolcom Graceful Ghost Rag, one of the more-well-known works, had the most intimate sound, demonstrating exceptional pianism.  The Nancarrow, which opened with a left hand theme, continued in the right hand seven-fifths of the tempo, and had tremendous syncopation and jazziness at the end was very exciting. But the highlight came with Lambert's arrangement of the Pilgrim's Chorus from Wagner's Tannhauser- which opened with the straightforward theme and broke out into a "frenzied, rambunctious rag", with marvelous virtuosity- bringing Denk tremendous and enthusiastic applause for the first half of his concert.

The second half of the program proved to be less successful overall. The same problems which plagued his interpretation of Mozart were much less in the Beethoven- but there were balance issues in the third movement, in which the melodic and harmonic unpinnings were obscured- simply by having a right hand which was too weak compared to his left hand. The exception to this in the Beethoven, once again, like the Mozart, was his slow movement. In the Adagio, Denk was able to showcase his ability to sing a melodic line and produce a very beautiful piano sound, further enhanced by heartfelt emotion and an interpretation that was utterly convincing.  Most importantly, throughout the Beethoven, Denk was at least able to bring out the dynamic contrasts that characterize Beethoven's music in an exciting and temperamental way- appropriate to this "Tempest" Sonata.

The Schubert Wanderer Fantasy had a mixed result as well. All too often, Denk played the Schubert as if it were Liszt or Tchaikovsky- and thus, the passage work- tons of arpeggios were played without sufficient articulation and finger strength, and the use of the pedal further obscured the bristling of excitement we might have otherwise felt if the listener could actually hear all the notes he was playing. He was in his best form in the slow movement of the Fantasy, where the right hand would play the melody in octaves, and he was able to really make the piano sing- and most often this occurred in the passages that were marked piano or pianissimo. His fortes were often clangorous, over-pedalled and dominated by the left hand in an unappealing way. Throughout  much of the program his pianos and pianissimos were quite perfect, but he lacked the depth of tone, strength and clarity in his right hand fast passagework in the louder and more dense passages, which was, quite frankly, disappointing. Additionally,  there were times when his concept of melody for Schubert, in terms of phrasing and pacing was not exactly what one would expect from Schubert. But, overall, the audience really seemed to enjoy Mr. Denk's performance, and he was called out for a single encore at the end which was soft, simple and extremely musical.

Perhaps this was an off-day for Mr. Denk- but I wouldn't know, since this is the first time I have heard him perform. But, I did take it upon myself to listen to his Bach Goldberg Variations CD, masterfully recorded by Adam Abeshouse, and found this recording to be exceptionally beautiful in tone and interpretation. My general feeling is that Mr. Denk is an artist who is passionate and full of personality- but oftentimes, this got in the way of this listener's enjoyment of his performance. Visually speaking, Mr. Denk has some mannerisms such as head rolling, eye-rolling, staring out at the audience and foot-stomping ( especially in the 3rd movement of the Mozart and again in the Beethoven) which became a distraction for the audience and likely an impediment for him to actually hear the results of his music making properly and execute the works to a level of which he is likely capable.

Summary: Mr. Denk is a very capable pianist with abundant passion and personality, but in this recital he lacked in a clear, appropriate concept of sound and a stylistically correct interpretation of Classical and early Romantic repertoire. He also needs to develop a stronger "fingers of steel" technique for playing forte passage work. With his extremely delicate touch and sensitivity, I imagine he would be well-suited to chamber music, and less so to big solo concerti with orchestra. Highlight of the concert were Mr. Denk's seven pieces "from Medieval to Modern", which closed the first half. I look forward to hearing this recording project which he announced at the Q and A following the concert.


 

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