If nothing else, Jeremy Denk’s solo recital last Sunday at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts should be credited for originality in programming. I would wager that a couple of the composers whose works he played had never before appeared on a recital programme in Vancouver. From Bach’s dance suite to Schumann’s Carnaval that ends the programme, it appears that the entire programme was infused with the spirit of the dance.
Denk begins his concert with J. S. Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808. The sound he makes on the piano was beautiful, and he played the music with a wonderful sense of rhythm and forward motion, especially in the extended concerto grosso–like Prelude. I did feel that there was a little over-pedaling, thus sacrificing a bit of textual clarity. The pianist also observes all the repeats in the dances. I didn’t, however, feel that there was enough variation in the way the repeats were played to justify their observance.
The rest of the concert’s first half was, in Denk’s words, a sort of “i-Pod shuffle” of different works. The next item on the programme, Scott Hayden and Scott Joplin’s Sunflower Slow Drag, was played with a great deal of charm, and just the right amount of rubato. It did, to me, sounded a little rushed, slightly breathless, reminding me of Joplin’s complaint that most people played his music too quickly. I would personally have liked him to take a little more time with the music, giving it slightly more breathing room.
The pianist then turned back the clock a few centuries, playing William Byrd’s The Passing Measures: the Nynth Pavian from My Ladye Nevelles Booke. Other than Glenn Gould and perhaps Peter Serkin, I cannot really think of any other pianists who would even attempt these virginal pieces on the modern concert grand. This music is notoriously difficult to bring off, as it is up to the artist to capture the audience’s attention with a variety of sounds and colours. I think Denk is successful in moving the music forward as well as holding our attention in this incredibly beautiful and moving music. As in the Bach, I did feel that the music suffered from a lack of clarity.
Igor Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music is written for and dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, as a thank you to the pianist for his financial assistance during a difficult period in the composer’s life. In the pianist’s entertaining but highly subjective memoirs My Many Years, he gives an account of his reaction to the work.
It took me four or five readings to understand the meaning of this music.
It bore out Stravinsky’s indication that it was going to be “the first real piano
piece.” In his sense, it was just that; but to me it sounded like an exercise for percussion and had nothing to do with any rag music, or with any other
music in my sense.
Rubinstein, although one of the first of the “modern” pianists and a great champion of contemporary composers, probably finds the “percussiveness” of Stravinsky’s score offensive to his sense of aesthetics of what is, or should be, beautiful, in music.
I believe that Stravinsky would have been highly pleased with Denk’s interpretation of the Piano Rag Music. It is certainly as “wild” and colourful as the composer intended it to be. The pianist’s reading of this music reminds me that Stravinsky is, after all, the composer of Le Sacre du printemps, the work that changed music in the 20th century.
Denk follows Stravinsky’s work with Paul Hindemith’s own “take” on ragtime, in his Ragtime, from the 1922 Suite. Prior to the Suite, the composer had previously experimented with the jazz idiom in his Kammermusik No. 1, where he introduced a foxtrot. In his preface to this Ragtime movement of the score, Hindemith admonishes the pianist with instructions like, “Pay no attention to what you have learned in your piano lessons”, “Play this piece very ferociously, but keep strictly in rhythm like a machine” and, “Regard the piano here as an interesting kind of percussion instrument and treat it accordingly.” Stravinsky would have approved of this work! The pianist certainly takes the composer’s advice to the letter, bringing out (even more than in the Stravinsky) the music’s wildness and savage drive.
Unlike the Joplin that he played earlier, I feel that Denk’s playing of William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag is utterly charming, with a perfect feel for the rhythm and pacing of the music, as well as impeccable taste.
The programme continues in its adventurous vein with Conlon Nancarrow’s Canons for Ursula No. 1, written for legendary American pianist Ursula Oppens. The composer wrote a large number of works for the player piano, thinking that the instrument would be able to bring off even the most complex rhythmic and polyphonic textures. Listening to Denk’s masterful playing of the score, one could easily think that the pianist is (in the best sense of the word) a sort of playing machine. I was stunned at how he manages the incredibly difficult timing and rhythmic shifts in the music. I am very grateful to the artist for introducing us to this score, and to actually playing a work by this elusive composer.
The final work of the first half, Donald Lambert’s arrangement of Wagner’s Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser, is a stride piano “look” at this very familiar music. Those who haven’t heard this music (myself including) would probably find it difficult to imagine how effective and wonderfully irreverent it is. Denk’s playing of this music brings the first half of the recital to a spirited finish.
After the adventurous first half, the two works presented after intermission seem positively traditional. Haydn’s Fantasia in C Major, Hob XVII:4 is a delightful romp through many different keys and surprisingly textual changes. Denk’s playing of this work is certainly breathtaking. Perhaps a marginally slower tempo would have given the music a slight bit more clarity, without really sacrificing the humour within the score. At risk of being accused of splitting hair, I feel that the (left hand) octaves at mm. 193-194 and at mm. 303-304 could have been held longer. In both instances, the subsequent entries appear to come too soon.
Robert Schumann’s perennially beautiful and fresh Carnaval, Op. 9, is Denk’s final offering for the afternoon. The spirit of the dance can certainly be found throughout this early masterpiece.
I find that with musicians who are attracted to highly complex music, there is an emotional ambivalence when they approach more “simple” music. This is the impression I get on Sunday with Denk’s playing of Carnaval. Somehow the sum didn’t add up to be greater than its parts, even with the artist’s incredible pianism.
I was surprised when, at mm. 112 to 113 of the Préamble, he sped up the music rather than observing the composer’s ritenuto. I also feel that stringendo marking at the end of the movement could have been done to greater effect, so that there is more of a build up. The rather quick tempo that Denk takes in the Valse noble robs the music of its, well, nobility and dignity, as well as its tension. In Chiarina, again the rather quick tempo, for me, takes away much of the passionato quality of the music. I do feel that the very fast tempo the pianist adopts for the Valse allemande suits the character of the music. He plays it quicker than many pianists I have heard, which is, for me, faithful to the composer’s molto vivace marking.
Denk’s playing of Eusebius and Chopin is, for me, the highlights of his interpretation of the work. In Eusebius, the pianist coaxes a luminous sound from the instrument, and the music comes off as dreamily as the composer would have wanted. In Chopin, Schumann’s deliciously wicked portrayal of the composer, there is an ardent quality that is somehow missing in much of the other sections of the work; in the repeat, there could have been more tonal variance to give more variety in the sound.
Denk’s pianistic abilities are brought to the fore in Pantalon et Colombine as well as in Paganini. His playing of the Marche des “Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins is impeccable. I did not think there is enough build up in tension or in sound towards an orgiastic finish to the music. Perhaps it is a lack of a sense of totality that makes this a less than completely satisfactory realization of the score.
In response to the urgings of the audience, Denk graced us with a limpid and beautiful account of the 13th variation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. As in the English Suite that opened the concert, I have the same reservation about over-pedaling, and the repeats just do not have enough variety in interpretation or sound to justify them.
We should all be thankful for Jeremy Denk’s highly varied and original programme. He is obviously a pianist with great pianistic ability, as well as something to say about the music he plays. I hope, in future, to hear him in different repertoire so as to get a more complete picture of his artistry.