Review: Jeremy Denk shows musical courage in brilliant performance

01.18.15
Jeremy Denk
Calgary Herald

By Kenneth Delong 

In a world filled with fine pianists, it is difficult to elbow one’s way into that small group of artists who remain before public and who are able to make a living concertizing. Jeremy Denk is one few such pianists, his success stemming from two qualities always appreciated by connoisseurs:  superb musicianship and evident intelligence.

The first was immediately apparent in the Haydn Sonata in C major that opened his Wyatt Concert Series program at MRU’s Leacock Theatre on Saturday, a performance of striking and vivid character and brilliant technical execution. This was not dainty Haydn, but rather a view of Haydn as a composer who mixed discipline of thought with a wide-ranging imagination.

Within the bounds of a cleanly projected classical style, Denk found personality and character in Haydn’s scales and chords, as well as wit and harmonic colour.  This is a sonata I have heard countless times played by professional pianist and fine students, but never have I heard it played with this level of musical imagination and sheer pianistic command.

The sonata set the stage for the most unusual aspect of the concert — a first half that consisted of a personal fantasy (Denk’s) based upon the intermingling of short piano pieces by Janacek and by Schubert. The reason for the choice of these pieces and how they related to each other in Denk’s fertile imagination was explained by Denk himself in a most interesting an compelling way.

The proof of the musical pudding came in the 30 minutes of an unbroken chain of little pieces, each possessing distinctive character but somehow magically connected to each other. As Denk suggested, all together the pieces conveyed a palpable musical image of Central Europe, the intersection of a German and Czech sensibility in a romantic context and a fusion early and late romantic idioms in melody and harmony. Although many of the pieces are not technically so hard to play, they all require the ability to penetrate their distinct, if evanescent, character.  And it was this element in Denk’s playing that was so remarkably captivating to the audience.

The second half, while including standard repertory material, continued the focus upon miniatures and upon vividly characterized moods. It opened with Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, a late work of the deepest sadness, leavened by episodes of happier character. As with the Haydn sonata, this was classic playing in every sense in terms of the execution, but equally romantic in the degree to which distinct mood states were projected at every turn.

The program ended with Schuman’s Carnaval, in a performance of the greatest virtuosity, freedom, and delicacy. Denk did not shy away from the implication of the titles to the individual movements, each of which was rendered with the greatest imagination — from Pierrot’s awkwardness, to Florestan’s noble and impetuous gestures. One of the most unusual movements was the Eusebius movement, played slower and more dreamily and I have ever heard it. The rapid repeated notes of Reconnaissance were handled the best I have ever heard in live performance.

In general, the performance captured the sense of improvisational freedom and youthful exuberance that lies at the core of the piece.  Here, and more generally throughout the program, it was Denk’s musical courage to go beyond being a pianist in the conventional sense to using the colours and brilliance of the instrument to project the deepest sense of musical character.

Nowhere was this more the case than in the extended encore, the Alcott’s movement of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, on of the composer’s greatest and most moving works — a fitting conclusion to an exceptionally fine recital.