Jeremy Denk, piano: Works by Bach, Schumann, Haydn, Byrd, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Hayden/Joplin, Nancarrow, Bolcom and Lambert, Chan Centre, October 18, 2015. 

There have been opportunities for music organizations to bring Jeremy Denk here over the last few years, but this is in fact his Vancouver debut.  Few contemporary pianists have caught the fancy of the American musical public more than this pianist, and it is easy to understand why.  Denk has brought an accessibility to much music (American and otherwise) that perhaps wasn’t previously there, both through his concert appearances and his perceptive writings on varied musical topics, the latter rewarded with a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013.  It has been a while since we have seen a North American artist who consciously seeks to be a writer and commentator as well as a performer.  This concert certainly did not shy away from the experimental or the didactic: it attempted to find an instructive unity in no less than ten composers ranging from Byrd to Bolcom.  As usual, Denk exhibited a wide variety of pianistic virtues: his lovely rounded tone, his precision, coupled with his keen structural awareness, wit and imagination.  At the same time, one recognizes that the pianist’s playing is more controlled and cerebral than some, and his high-strung nature sometimes precludes relaxed warmth.  His casual playfulness and ‘jazziness’ can delight, though not always.

The opening Bach English Suite was impressive for the sheer clarity of its articulation, and its ability to expose all the voicings.  The detail of the faster movements, combined with their ardour and density (e.g., the insistent twang of the lower notes) immediately took me to the harpsichord, and in particular, the long-revered Igor Kipnis. There was a robust energy here, and certainly no lingering. The later movements, in particular, the Sarabande and the two Gavottes, achieved an attractive dance-like flow and pliability of texture, though the pianist’s degree of control sometimes took away from genuine repose.  By any standard, this was finely-considered, attentive Bach, even if I might be partial to something freer in feeling.

The next sequence of 3-8 minute segments of 7 different composers, Baroque to modern, was potentially very adventurous, and I could clearly see Denk’s mission to show the evolution of rhythmic patterns and phrase configurations that unite these pieces, with particular emphasis on ragtime compositions.  The presentation was not easy to follow: the pianist seemingly indicated a different ordering of the pieces when talking about them onstage than was in the concert programme, likely confusing more than just myself. I might have also appreciated a more patient discussion of the works, perhaps in two parts.

While there is clear virtue in keeping such an exploration casual, my overall feeling was that things came out as slightly too lightweight and ‘fun’ for the audience, deflecting the educational interest.  As beautifully as they were played, the simple seductiveness of some of the rags left more the impression that the pianist was doing encores at a jazz piano bar than digging into substantive musical links.  Closing with Donald Lambert’s ‘Pilgrims Chorus from Tannhauser’ hardly helped, as hilariously funny as it is.  Perhaps this is just a matter of taste: I have no dislike of entertainers, but there is a line to draw if the artist really wants to make musical points.  By far the best items were the serious, more abstract items that the pianist relishes so much and plays commandingly: the Hindemith Ragtime from Suite (1922), the Nancarrow Canons for Ursala, No. 1 (the rhythmic control mirroring what he does for Ligeti) and the Bolcom Ghost Rag (having lovely flow and nuance).  Here we saw what this pianist is all about.

I am not sure what playing all these items in a row does to an artist’s mood, but Denk certainly came out full of verve and attack after the intermission.  He literally ate up Haydn’s Fantasia in C at a terrific pace (rather too much for me), and then moved to the final big work, Schumann’s Carnaval, which had many jazzy pushes and pulls too.  Some of these clearly cast the work in a fresh light but, after a while, the approach struck me as fragmented and at one remove from Schumann’s world.  With all the strong rhythmic articulation, jazzy emphases, and focus on contrast, there was really little sense of the underlying innocence, whim and natural delight in the writing, nor the emotional warmth or relaxation that are surely hallmarks of this composer.  I often noted the pianist more than the composer.  Some of the more emotive, slower interludes revealed a certain sculpted beauty, but perhaps a touch of sentimentality too.  The most convincing organic development came at the end, and this was bought off strongly in long paragraphs, with virtuoso flourish.  This work obviously has an appeal to artists with a ‘crossover’ leaning, but if it is any comfort, I didn’t respond that positively to Kirill Gerstein’s efforts a few years ago either.

I have no doubts about the remarkable talents of Jeremy Denk, what an enterprising force he is, or his ability to leave his mark on any audience he touches.  Nonetheless, I would have probably liked to learn more than I did at this concert and might have enjoyed hearing one longer modern work (e.g., Ives, Ligeti) where the pianist’s pristine control and imagination have a striking payoff.  On this occasion, I think the pianist’s concentration got somewhat dispersed by his own experiments.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015