Denk closes Arsht season in style with deep Schubert and classical jazz

Jeremy Denk
South Florida Classical Review

By Lawrence Budmen

Jeremy Denk is the epitome of a 21st-century musician. The American pianist combines stellar technique with fascinating interpretive instincts in wide-ranging repertoire. His enthusiasm for covering the byways as well as the mainstream of keyboard literature was on full display Thursday night in a recital at the Arsht Center, the concluding event of this season’s Knight Masterworks series.

Denk possesses pianistic firepower to burn. He can play with absolute accuracy and clarity at the fastest speeds. While his technical assurance is impressive, Denk’s sensitive touch and probing musical instincts alight his often fascinating readings of both familiar and less frequently heard scores.

In Bach’s English Suite No. 3, his jazzy tempos and crisp articulation brought fresh perspectives to the Prelude, Courante and Gavotte. In the Sarabande, he brought out the darkness below the singing melodic threads and the final Gigue was infused with sinew as well as lightness. This was not Bach for purists or period instrument aficionados but it was undeniably invigorating.

A set of ragtime-infused vignettes opened with an elegant traversal of Scott Joplin’s Sunflower Slow Drag. Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music rearranges and deconstructs the basic patterns of piano rags. Replete with off-kilter rhythms, the score played to Denk’s penchant for knuckle-busting pyrotechnics.

An excerpt from My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal Music by William Byrd provided a 17th-century interlude. Denk’s purity of tone and imaginative tracing of the theme and variations offered calm before the storm he conjured up in Hindemith’s Ragtime from 1922. Mixing strong elements of American jazz with cluster chords and thorny harmonics, Hindemith conceived a rhythmically wild and witty commentary on the song and dance crazes of the roaring 20s.

Denk brought sweetness and restraint to William Bolcom’s Grateful Ghost Rag. Bolcom’s tribute to Joplin speaks in tones of sadness and grace. Conlon Nancarrow’s blues-tinged Canon imagines ragtime through the iconoclastic composer’s player-piano pressure cooker. With the left and right hands playing in different meters, Nancarrow’s Bach update was a fine exhibition of Denk’s technical acuity.

Read the full review here.