Jeremy Denk Piano Recital at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts

Tonight Jeremy Denk presented an intriguing piano recital as part of the Arens Series of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, presented at Washington Irving High School’s nicely-refurbished auditorium. Denk presented an eclectic program of Mozart, Ligeti, Byrd and Schumann.

As a long-time attender of Peoples’ Symphony programs, I feel like I’ve watched Denk grow up at the keyboard, since he has appeared several times over the years. Now a mature artist, he hasn’t lost that childlike wonder and excitement that make his performances of even the most mainstream repertory seem fresh and newly-conceived. Indeed, although he is clearly playing all the notes with great facility and has thought through exactly what he wants to do, there is an air of improvisation about his work that helps to bring the music to startling life.

He began with Mozart’s Sonata in F Major, K. 533/494, a piece patched together from two unrelated manuscripts. I thought the first movement was just too fast at many points, but maybe that’s just me. No matter how fast, everything was cleanly rendered, but I think things just don’t “sound” if they are played too fast. I had no such complaint about the remaining movements. This performance struck me as a bit old-fashioned, in the sense that it was a large-scale dramatic rendition using the full dynamic range and coloristic capabilities of the piano, far beyond what would have been available to Mozart. The “historically informed practice” people would undoubtedly not approve, but I find that I enjoy performances of old music that break from such strictures… and perhaps ask what Mozart would have done with the capacities of a 21st century concert grand?

Denk is a master of the Ligeti Etudes. Tonight he gave us a selection of six from Book Two, having decided after the program was printed to drop one of the seven that were listed. He plays them with great energy and enthusiasm for ultimate dynamic contrast and rhythmic excitement, although the final one he selected ended calmly, perhaps to create a symmetry with the second half of the program.

After intermission, we had a brief piece by William Byrd from “My Ladye Nevelles Booke” and, as with the Mozart, Denk made no concessions to the age of the music, giving a very pianistic rendition that was quite beautiful in its graceful lyricism.

Finally — and definitely the highlight of the evening for me — Robert Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze, Op. 6, a collection of 18 highly contrasted character pieces, with some recurring motifs, that were constantly fascinating in Denk’s very personalized approach. As noted above, a particular feature of his playing is creating an air of spontaneity, even improvisation, but in performances that are technically impeccable and so clearly carefully thought out. I hope he will record this piece before long, understanding that any recording would be a mere snapshot of his constantly evolving conception, but it is at present a conception worth preserving.

Denk’s recently-released recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a spectacular success, and he favored us with one of the variations as an encore.

This was undoubtedly one of the most satisfying programs of this year’s Peoples’ Symphony series. It was worth the price of the entire subscription and more.

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