Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review: Jeremy Denk

March 21, University of Richmond

Pianist Jeremy Denk played his "Beauty and the Beast" program – Bach’s "Goldberg" Variations preceded by Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 – to a small but closely attentive and highly appreciative audience in his second visit to Richmond this season.

Drawing parallels or links between these compositions would be a stretch. (Denk stretched no farther than to observe that both quote hymn tunes on the theme of wandering.) What really held these disparate selections together were Denk’s personality, reflected in an impetuous interpretive approach, and his employment of grand-piano technique and sonority in both works.

The standard view of Ives – which Denk shares, judging by his introductory remarks – is of a composer who combines and contrasts nostalgia for 19th-century Currier & (unrelated) Ives Americana with a radical, quirky modernism that revels in dissonance and melodic fragmentation. Both aspects of Ives come through quite clearly in the First Sonata, and Denk made sure they were audible and suitably contrasted.

His performance also reminded listeners that Ives was a contemporary of Busoni, Godowsky, Rachmaninoff and other late-romantic virtuoso pianist-composers. However radical Ives was as a composer, this sonata shows him to be a conformist (!) regarding turn-of-the-20th-century notions of grand-piano sonority, dynamism and rhetorical gesture. Denk’s phrasing, accenting and dynamic contrasting were romantically pianistic; that sound and sound-scale gave Ives’ jokes, outbursts, evocations and sound effects different contexts, inviting different inferences.

Busoni, et al., came to mind again, perhaps even more vividly, in Denk’s performance of the "Goldbergs." This was not just a piano performance, but a performance straight out of the golden-age piano playbook – ringing treble, resounding bass, whisper-to-bellow dynamics, glittering cascades of notes, deep passion, edge-of-the-seat tension, all the trimmings.

HIP (historically informed performance) mavens would have hated it in principle, and might rightly have observed that Denk’s nervy, speedy approach resulted in some weirdly over- or understated accents and more than a few muddles of closely spaced notes. As a performance, though, it was thrilling; and as a conversation between creative and re-creative minds, it was engrossing.

Jeremy Denk will conduct a free master class from 10 a.m.-noon March 22 in Camp Concert Hall of the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center. Details: (804) 289-8980.