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Denk Stuns Audience at Bard’s Sosnoff

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Sep 12th, 2016

Jeremy Denk opened his concert with a short talk stating that he was presenting an overview of Western music. He said he would be tracing tonalities and chromatic developments. From the outset Denk implied that he was playing contemporary interpretations of period pieces.

Denk opened with one of the most famous of medieval compositions:  Machaut’s “Douce dame jolie,” a song that proposes love to a lady. This fourteenth-century piece was originally meant for the lute, since neither harpsichord nor piano had yet been invented. He played it in the manner of a John Field nocturne—slowly, meditatively, with open spaces between notes. After another optimistic Machaut love song, Denk played “Triste plaisir,” by fifteenth-century composer Gilles Binchois, which portrayed a more complicated ambivalence concerning love and its brief pleasure.

A cascade of short pieces followed, demonstrating the influence of religion and wit on music in England and France. Then the scene moved to Italy, tracing a renewal of romance. With Frescobaldi, Domenico Scarlatti, and J. S. Bach, music became more cerebral and abstract. Scarlatti remained secular, witty, sarcastic and supercilious, while Bach achieved the apex of a stunning new contrapuntal synthesis within a more universal religious context.

After intermission gears shifted to Mozart: his effortless lyricism and scintillating intellectuality behind a newly invented Romanticism. Beethoven’s Sonata no. 5 plunged into the now-personal depths of this Romanticism with explosive shudder as Schubert transformed lyricism to encompass a wider social context, and Schumann withdrew back into entrenched, breathless, dissonant statement.

Two Chopin Préludes cast us backward toward Mauchaut’s optimism, while Liszt cracked open a wider and wilder dramatic chromaticism with his clanging piano arrangement of Isolde’s Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Brahms offered a subtle nostalgic revival of Bach’s counterpoint with Klavierstücke. Schoenberg ushered in a new dizzy scale, and Debussy reinvented a transcendent lyricism. Denk wrung the Debussy both high and low and so wondrously that I sat transfixed in astonishment.    

A nocturne by Poulenc followed; its delicate classicism was bruised by the edgy blue notes of jazz. Denk tackled Igor Stravinsky’s humorous, lengthy cubist landscape “Piano-Rag-Music,” in which asymmetrical rhythms, unusual juxtapositions and seemingly whimsical notes sparkled at unexpected angles.   

The serialism of Stockhausen and Glass, with tricks of crosshanded notes and an obsession with the higher register of the keyboard, achieved a lyrical transcendence that was nearly religious in inspiration.

The climax rested on the shoulders of György Ligeti. “Autumn in Warsaw” ostensibly refers to an annual festival of contemporary music held in Warsaw. The piece explores a continuous transformation of the initial descending figure, using overlapping groups of serial notes with unexpected chromatic explosions, concluding with a bass smash of the keyboard. This étude is dedicated to Ligeti's Polish friends who died or endured imprisonment during the Holocaust, hence the abrupt and shocking ending of the piece. Denk emphasized descending chromatic lines presenting beautiful harmonies, yet those lines ironically erase any perception of beauty. This most heartfelt performance concluded with the horror of brutal realism—a long journey from Machaut, and from love as the initial inspiration for Western classical music.

Binchois’s “Triste plaisir” was played once more, with a slightly jaunty and elegiac jazz rhythm. This time the piece was not regret for complications involving a momentary love dalliance but rather an ironic satire on a civilization devoted to extermination, a message as vital today as it was when “Autumn in Warsaw” was composed in 2006, just before Ligeti’s death.

In his Introduction Denk had announced that he was going to end the concert with a question, which must have gone something like this: will music and civilization, with its wealth of humanity’s exfoliating gifts, follow the path of romance and love, or will it embrace self-hatred, environmental apocalypse or collective annihilation?

The audience demanded three bows from Denk. He played with impassioned grace, immediacy and a feeling of spontaneity amid the epic sweep of Western music, stamping it with his own imprint. At one point his sheet music became entangled; he brushed it away with comic annoyance.

My colleague Tonia Shoumatoff helpfully contributed though conversation and notes to this review.