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Jeremy Denk Piano Recital at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts

Posted on: April 13th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

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.

Peoples’ Symphony Concerts Launch 114th Season with Piano Recital by Lise de la Salle

Posted on: October 14th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Peoples’ Symphony Concerts organization launched their 114th season on Saturday night, October 12, 2013, presenting a piano recital by Lise de la Salle in the newly-renovated auditorium at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan.  Miss de la Salle, who has play previously at PSC, offered a program of Bach-Busoni, Debussy, and Schumann, with two encores of Liszt elaborations of songs by Schumann and Schubert.

I first became acquainted with de la Salle’s playing through her recordings on the Naïve label, and quickly became a fan – a status confirmed the first time I heard her play at PSC.  This Saturday’s program fell a bit short of that standard, I thought, although it is difficult for me to put my finger on the reason why.

She had originally designed the program to present Schumann in the first half and Bach-Busoni and Debussy in the second half, but then after the programs had been printed informed the presenters that she was flipping the order.  Good idea or bad idea?  It meant she opened with J.S. Bach’s Chaconne for Unaccompanied Violin, as elaborated into a virtuosic piano piece in the grand late romantic manner by Ferruccio Busoni, and that was a good opener, but I found her performance of it to be very heavy-handed.  The notes were all there, but the spirit of Bach’s original seemed buried under the busy-ness of the Busoni arrangement.  Of course, one could argue that this was entirely in keeping with the Busoni half of this forced partnership, but I’m not so sure.  I’ve heard Busoni performances that were more fleet, more supple, than what I heard on Saturday night.

The following Debussy Preludes, a selection of six, was much better.  In fact, I thought in retrospect that this was the most successful selection on the program, because the delicacy I found lacking in the Bach-Busoni was very much present here, and appropriately so for the music.  I would not want to stereotype Miss de la Salle, a Frenchwoman, in terms of repertory, but this very French impressionist music seemed to play to her strengths as a colorist.

The Schumann after intermission was all well-played, I thought, but I didn’t hear any kind of really strong identification of the pianist with this music.  I would describe the Schumann performances as competent, polished, but lacking that last ounce of inspiration.   The playing of the two encores was excellent, and I could have enjoyed hearing more Liszt from Miss de la Salle, who excels in this composer.

A final note on the surroundings: whoever planned and executed the renovation of the auditorium did a fine job overall, but I wish there had been enough money to put even slight padding on the seats, which remain the very hard wooden seats characteristic of a high school auditorium rather than the well-upholstered seats characteristic of a modern concert hall.  Perhaps they feared altering the excellent acoustics?  At any rate, the acoustics survive, and at least the new seats have the merit of being more form-fitting than the old and of NOT being broken!!

Next up from PSC is a piano recital at Washington Irving by Garrick Ohlsson that should be a real stunner – Brahms Rhapsodies Op. 79, Liszt Ad Nos Fantasia, Debussy (selected) Etudes, and Chopin’s F Minor Fantasy.  Hearing Ohlsson play at PSC is a real treat.  I’ve heard him uptown in the big halls, but WIHS auditorium is much more intimate setting, and the price certainly is right.  Tickets, if still available, can be obtained through the PSC website.