Pianist Denk masterful, intense in Union College series opener

Jeremy Denk
Daily Gazette

By Geraldine Freedman

SCHENECTADY — Pianist Jeremy Denk opened the Union College Concert Series Friday night in masterful style. As an often guest on the series, audiences have come to expect sometimes sensational but always expertly played programs.

On Friday there was an especially jubilant edge to the two works he offered: Mozart’s Sonata in F Major (1786-88) and Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Perhaps, because Denk is one of this year’s MacArthur Fellowship awardees, his playing — always assured — was an expression of pure joy. The win, however, caused some havoc in his practice schedule with all the commitments, so the printed program was shelved. Then, too, Denk released a disc of the Bach (Nonesuch) barely two weeks ago. The near-capacity crowd was not disappointed.

Denk said the Mozart, which had been scheduled, was a late work and was very complex, fascinating and had counterpoint connections to Bach in its first movement. He also found its frequent shifts from major to minor keys “wild and funny ... with hints of tragedy.” The second movement was “beautiful, bizarre, austere and audacious”; and the finale was a delightful joke that began in the treble range but ended in the bass.

Denk then played each movement with great clarity, a delicate ringing tone, strongly inflected phrases with gentle nuances, and a judicious use of the pedal. His phrases also had lift, and the fluidity of his technique in the fast passages created streams of silvery notes. Everything was played with much feeling and an exquisite sense of taste.

The Bach is a tour de force that shows off not only Bach’s fertile imagination and daring, mind-bending inventiveness but also a pianist’s skills. Every aspect is touched upon from technical facility and musicality to stamina. The thirty variations plus the two playings of the theme take more than 60 minutes.

Denk was tireless. Except for a few moments of silence before the slow variations, Denk attacked each variation in a quick segue. Tempos were boldly vigorous and often very fast, rhythms were taut and pungent, yet melodies were strongly emphasized. The few slow movements in which Bach’s daring harmonies were most audible were done with loving care. Denk’s intense energy was itself electrifying. It was marvelous playing.

The audience was rapt but just as it took Denk huge amounts of concentration to play the Bach, it took equal amounts to listen to it. Overheard after the concert: “That was huge. I’ve got to get my mind back.”