Jeremy Denk changes things up with ragtime shuffle at Jordan Hall

04.04.16
Jeremy Denk
Boston Globe

Jeremy Denk’s agenda for his Celebrity Series of Boston recital on Saturday was a wonderful riposte to those relentlessly conventional programs that traffic largely in canon favorites. True, his concert was bookended by the familiar, opening with Bach’s Third English Suite and ending with Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat.
Between them, though, was a hugely imaginative suite of ragtime-related works of the pianist’s own assemblage, a “seven-part iPod shuffle,” he called it, exploring “the joy and wit of syncopation.” The terms were set in Scott Joplin’s “Sunflower Slow Drag,” Denk playing with a supple left hand and just a bit behind the beat, to keep the ‘ragged’ rhythms from becoming mechanical. Those basic elements were fed through the shredder in Stravinsky’s “Piano-Rag Music,” which resembled a Joplin rag as a cubist portrait resembles its subject. A Pavane by William Byrd seemed initially to be the odd piece out, but in the syncopated accents of one of its variations Denk had shrewdly found a ragtime precursor centuries before the fact.
Hindemith’s “Ragtime,” from his piano suite “1922,” played like a deconstruction of the genre’s rhythmic interface, working itself into a machinic frenzy. William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost Rag” lowered the temperature; a canon by Conlon Nancarrow, with exactingly differentiated speeds between left and right hands, raised it back up. The outrageous closer was a stomping arrangement of the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” rendered as a stride piano showpiece by Donald Lambert. It is an amazing feat of cultural appropriation that’s also funny as hell.
Denk’s playing of this glorious pastiche was all energy and mischievous glee. Some of its rhythmic wildness seeped into the Bach as well, which he charged through in almost breakneck fashion, at times seeming to get carried away by its forward momentum. In the Sarabande he spotlighted Bach’s remarkable harmonies without sacrificing the aura of stillness he’d created. Read the rest of the review here