Debut of American Jeremy Denk turns into triumph

Jeremy Denk

Translated from German

Compressor Hall audience acclaims the pianist and his extraordinary dance-themed program with roaring jubilation

American pianist Jeremy Denk made his debut at the Ruhr Piano Festival with a highly unusual program. Framed by Bach and Schubert, the sequence of music he presented offered a wild ride across the history of the Ragtime. The concert at the Compressor Hall of Duisburg’s Landschaftspark turned out a veritable triumph for the artist.

American Ragtime may be at the center of this concert, but Denk starts off with dance music by Bach. Denk demonstrated, at that point already, his great rhythmic wit when highlighting and juxtaposing individual melodies from the dense contrapuntal fields of the English Suite No. 3. Slower movements such as the Sarabande have Denk present Bach almost as a romantic dreamer.

Prior to the 30-plus minutes Ragtime series, Denk explained that he was after an 'investigation into wit and syncopation’. The opening ‚Sunflower Slow Drag’ by Scott Hayden and Scott Joplin was performed swiftly and grippingly. The following ‚Piano-Rag-Music’ by Igor Stravinsky, however, showe a radical deconstruction of Ragtime, played with robust rhythmic sense. ‚The Passing Mesures’ by Shakaespeare contemporary William Byrd was introduced by Denk in a lyric tone, but then he turned the Pavane into a Renaissance Rag, hammered into the Steinway with high energy. Paul Hindemth’s Ragtime is a whirlwind, William Bolcom’s ‚Graceful Ghost Rag’ comes across as soft and tender.

Mozart’s Gigue, then, is almost shocking, so radically accentuated and phrased as it is presented that you hardly recognize this as Mozart. You realize that Jeremy Denk is not merely a musician but an interpreter of music, revealing Mozart in an entirely different light. 

Completely insane, bordering on the unplayable, is the Canon No. 1 by Conlon Nancarrow, requiring the hands to play in different tempi. But the pianist masterfully vaults that hurdle, too, before concluding his Ragtime lecture with Donald Lambert’s jazzy version of the Plgrim Chorus from Wagner’s ‚Tannhäuser’. He was cheered by the audience with roaring jubilation and a stomping hurricane of applause. 

All this is followed by Schubert’s Sonata No. 21, an important work in the history of piano music. Denk has Schubert’s lyric melodies shine as a supplication for redemption. It is phenomenal to see how he, time and again, creates the most diverse colorings while at the same time having everything stream jointly in a compelling dreamlike narration. 

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