Monday, March 25, 2013

Review: Jeremy Denk

March 23, Virginia Commonwealth University

Jeremy Denk has performed in Richmond and environs six times in the past nine years, exploring most every corner of the piano’s solo, chamber and concerto repertory. His first solo recital, in 2010 at the University of Richmond, memorably paired Charles Ives’ First Piano Sonata with Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” His second solo date, in VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts series, looked to be another such cultural collision, with Bartók’s Piano Sonata abutting a selection of pieces by Liszt, followed by Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor and Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the C minor, Op. 111.

The performance turned out to be less about disparate musics than about Denk’s engagement with each selection. Each piece offered, in very different ways, an opportunity for the pianist to dive in to the music – rhythmically, expresssively, colorfully, as an intellectual or a tactile experience. Even understatement in these pieces requires an active interpreter to pull off.

Denk dove in from the start, driving the already intense rhythmic figures of the outer movements of the Bartók sonata, and rarely let up through the program. Even the relatively serene encore, the 13th variation from the “Goldbergs,” conveyed the energy and tension of music being made up on the spot.

Denk’s energy and spontaneity sold the Bartók to listeners, many of whom had probably dreaded hearing it. Phrasing and deft application of color were the prime attractions of the Liszt set, which used the composer’s piano arrangements of the Bach Prelude “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” and the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” to bracket two pieces from the Italian book of Liszt’s “Années de pèlerinage,” Petrarch’s Sonata 123 and “Après une lecture du Dante.”

The second half of the program, Beethoven bracketed by Bach, was introduced verbally, then played, by Denk as a study in contrasts of the dissimilar – notably in the long set of variations that conclude the Beethoven. Temperament occasionally overcame technique in the Beethoven, especially in the more densely scored variations.