Jeremy Denk almost upstages himself as a blogger star of Think Denk: The Glamorous Life and Thoughts of a Concert Pianist, but he continues to be a sublime pianist who keeps plays some of the most challenging works in the classical repertoire alive (he tosses off Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, for instance, when others flee at its mere mention). He was in Philly at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society mid-December, in a rescheduled performance from October that was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy. The program was switched around from Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms to Schumann and Bach, unexplained, but resulting in a musical highlight of the performance year.
One of the reasons Denk is such a formidable musician is because he consistently peals away any embellishments or accumulated vamps of large piano works to get to the essence of the composer’s intent. He played both pieces without scores in front of him and at some point you wonder how that is humanly possible, but a clue might be in how rapturous Denk is playing this music.
Denk introduced Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, op. 6 (1837) with a few words about the composer’s life and this being a pivotal composition in Schumann’s career. Instead of pursuing his law degree, he was getting his mother to send him sheet music of Franz Schubert waltzes. And there was his secret, scorching love affair with Clara that fueled his music. Denk described how Schumann mastered the waltz form, and that these were ‘waltzes on steroids,’ expressing many moods, but also very distilled, with earthy subtext.
Schumann’s interpretive romanticism has been disabused in many ways. Denk brings forth the turbulence of composer’s waltz and mazurka variations. The changing template is intense, Denk’s thrilling pacing and deft clarity building a cohesive, forward moving narrative whole.
The audience wasn’t completely quiet for the pristine opening of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, through some sharp coughs and talking by the old and the restless, it hardly mattered, instantly he seems completely in the zone opening up the scope and drama of this music.
You get a sense that Denk is continuing an exploration into the purity of Bach at all times. The Variations have centuries of history and there are those minted performances of Glenn Gould, but, in Denk’s hands all that baggage is unfelt, the profundities of Bach are something to be conjured in the moment. This music isn’t under glass, Denk’s exploratory artistry is always present. you can just listen casually as a classic or, in hear its core, almost like a musical double-helix from which all musical life after that sprung.
Denk is at times dancey over the keyboard, (at one point his foot almost stomping to Bach’s subtle rhythmic tension); other sections had him hunched over the keyboard or bolt upright. He was especially relaxes with the Olympian hand over hand dexterity in some of the denser sections. He is unshowy, but doesn’t suppress his emotional response tot he music. Indeed, one the Denk’s qualities is his genuine sense of discovery and immediacy of the music through his playing.
There were comments as people filed out — unfussy, spellbinding, best I ever heard, etc. and that they wish he would have recorded that performance.