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Jeremy Denk: Magus at the piano

Amazing concert at Trinity-Pawling School
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Apr 30th, 2016

Jeremy Denk at Gardiner Theater

Jeremy Denk mesmerized the audience at Trinity-Pawling's Gardiner Theater on Friday evening. Each note he played on the Steinway piano was distinct, even in trills. Here was crispness coupled with nuance where each note or half-note floated with surging grace.

Denk began with J.S. Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G minor, BMV 808. The vigorous counterpoint of the Prelude gave way to a slower Allemande to which Denk imparted a Romantic inflection, as he also did with the Sarabande, while the Courante, Gavottes, and concluding Gigue romped in old dancing shoes.

Denk chose ragtime as a sweeping theme for his next series of pieces which he described as an I-pad shuffle. Beginning with “Sunflower Slow Drag” by Scott Joplin and Scott Hayden, Denk set that buoyant mood of exhilaration characteristic of ragtime. He segued into a dance tune by 16th century William Byrd, only to end up in Art Tatum’s “Tea for Two” before plunging into Igor Stravinsky’s humorous, lengthy cubist landscape of “Piano-Rag-Music” where asymmetrial rhythms and notes whimsically sparkled at odd angles. Then Denk was on to a couple of ragtime dances by Charles Ives before submerging into Paul Hindemith’s “Ragtime from 1922, Op. 26,” where ragtime sounded more soberly profound than what one might ordinarily think. Then Denk stepped off a ledge into absurdity with Colon Nancarrow’s “Canon.” Nancarrow (1912-1997) was known for his work on simultaneous tempos. This 1989 piece was a most amusing revelation to me. As a tonkic for sanity, Denk riffed out William Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost (Rag)." Denk concluded with a satiric send-off by Lambert Murphy, a concert singer who worked for the Metropolitan Opera: a ragtime version of Wagner’s “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser. This rollicking roller-coaster from pop to the arcane brimmed with irony and wit—it was a labyrinth of echoing joy.

After intermission Denk addressed Franz Schubert’s Sonata No. 17 in D major, D. 850. This long, youthful sonata captures Schubert’s ambitious eccentricity. The opening “Allegro vivace” playfully inverts and turns upside down Bach’s runs in counterpoint. The Romantic salon “Con motto” that succeeds it contains many short lyrical runs that are nearly hymnal. Here Denk played with exceptional grace, charm, and lilting rhythm. The “Scherzo: Allegro vivace” that followed announced a more symphonic ambition with grandiose dynamics between lyrical motifs and larger clusters of notes that were nearly Napoleonic, especially in the movement's stunningly dramatic crescendo. The concluding “Rondo: Allegretto moderato” showcased early sunny humor and whimsy. Most concert pianists play later Schubert sonatas: this early piece was a fabulous gem I was not aware of. After the concert Denk opined to me that this Schubert sonata was the hidden key to understanding Gustav Mahler’s great Fourth Symphony.

For encore, Denk played an excerpt from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, no. 13, thus bringing the concert back to where it began. The principal theme of the night was dance and the dance had come full circle. Trinity-Pawling had a full house at its Gardiner Theater. Everyone there left in high spirits with their ears ringing with concatenating notes of sheer pleasure.