“He’s So Musical”

by Sedgwick Clark

PK turned to me last Friday (3/22) at Carnegie Hall when the applause had died down for intermission and asked, “Where did he come from? He’s so musical. Where did he train?” Moments later, she continued animatedly to friends who had joined us, “He seems relaxed with the piano – it’s not an adversarial relationship like the Serkin school, where the instrument is an enemy to be conquered. He doesn’t play with anxiety, which is rare these days.” She also liked his insightful program notes.

What a relief! Her usual question when I’ve cajoled her into going to a concert that initially elicited a frown is muttered after the first piece or movement: “Why am I here?” Fact is, she’d almost always rather spend the evening at home with our three bichons, but this time she was happy she came.

The recitalist was Jeremy Denk, who opened the program audaciously with Bartók’s Piano Sonata (1926). I hadn’t heard the Sonata in many years and was reminded of its strong kinship to the First Piano Concerto (my favorite of the three), which Bartók composed later that year. It’s the first of his oeuvre to use the piano as a percussion instrument. “Though dissonant and raucous, it’s very good-humored,” Denk states in his notes, and his rendering of the work’s dance and folk elements, his colorful tonal palette, and refusal to bang served the music brilliantly.

Great Liszt performances require beauty of tone, first and foremost. In “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” Prelude after J.S. Bach, S. 179; Sonetto 123 del Petrarca from Années de pèlerinage, Deuxième année; Dante Sonata; and Isoldes Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde — a group Denk describes as “ranging from worldly pain to bliss to damnation to death” — he succeeded admirably, with all the requisite dynamic range. The first work, astonishingly, seems to be the first Carnegie Hall performance in recorded history. The Petrarca Sonetto purred with velvet. The turbulent Dante, which so often sprawls, was the most convincing, i.e., coherent, performance I’ve heard. The Tristan transcription, which easily curdles, was gorgeously sustained.

Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 869, appeared underplayed, perhaps deliberately, for it was followed by a Beethoven Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, replete with chance taking. Carnegie’s wet acoustic has always challenged piano recitals (at least in the parquet seats), especially after the hall’s 1986 renovation, and Denk’s fingers seemed to race ahead at times in the Allegro. The second-movement Adagio lacked breadth to my taste, despite excellent trills and an emotionally satisfying coda, but PK “really liked” the performance in its entirety.

Denk fans may look forward to Saturday evening, May 4, when he joins Renée Fleming and several other fine artists at Carnegie in an attractive lineup of vocal and chamber fin de siècle works.

By the way, Denk earned a master’s degree as a pupil of György Sebök at Indiana University and a doctorate in piano performance at Juilliard, where he studied with Herbert Stessin.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

3/28 Avery Fisher Hall. Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel. Vivier: Zipangu. Debussy: La Mer. Stravinsky: The Firebird (complete ballet).

4/1 at 7:30. Symphony Space. Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival. Pulse Chamber Ensemble; Chris Reza Trio. Victoria Bond: Cyclops. Charles Mason: Pulsearrythmic. Thomas Sleeper: Semi-Suite. Jesse Jones: Unisono. Chris Reza: Cacophony.

4/3 Carnegie Hall. Boston Symphony/Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Hindemith: Concert Music for Strings and Brass. Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra.

4/4 Carnegie Hall. Boston Symphony/Daniele Gatti; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo; Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Mahler: Symphony No. 3.

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