Archive for October, 2013

Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk

One of the fascinating, if perhaps under-appreciated, aspects of a live performance is the effect of a musician’s body language on our response to the music. I found myself reflecting on this subject after seeing Jeremy Denk at Chicago’s Symphony Center performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  This is the third time I have heard this work in the same venue in the past decade or so, and my appreciation of it has grown with each performance. It is surely the most satisfying fusion of intellect, emotion, and sheer fun in the piano literature, a dazzling display of erudition resulting in music of joyful exuberance. Denk’s evident enthusiasm for the piece, his delight in its invention and sense of play, was infectious and impossible to resist. And yet, I suspect that his interpretation was not that different from that of András Schiff and Angela Hewitt. All three are notable exponents of Bach, skilled in voicing contrapuntal music, graceful in ornamentation, and capable of floating beautiful cantabile lines over subtly shaded accompaniments. I’m not sure if I would have been able to tell them apart in a blind hearing, but they left quite different impressions.

András Schiff always plays with an effortless authority but can sometimes seem a little disengaged. He plays with his arms extended as if he is laying out architectural drawings for us to inspect. The playing is unfailingly beautiful, but his professorial demeanor tends to elicit admiration for, rather than encourage involvement in, this music. On the other hand, Angela Hewitt, always a picture of elegance, plays with extraordinary lightness and wit. I recall her playing the quicksilver appoggiaturas of Variation 23 with her slender arms scarcely touching the keyboard, an astonishing mixture of verve and grace as if she were tap-dancing with Fred Astaire rather than sitting at a piano keyboard. This was the one passage where Denk seemed rather clumsy in comparison.

Of the three, though, I think Denk conveyed the greatest sense of joy in the music. His whole body exuded pleasure – particularly his head, which rocked from side to side incessantly. This could have been distracting, especially if it had been accompanied by soulful grimaces (which it wasn’t), but I found it made his playing even more communicative. He clearly relished all of Bach’s elaborate games, tossing figurations from one hand to the other, crossing and uncrossing his arms, his head always bobbing with delight. In the more hushed music, such as the opening aria, which was played with exquisite delicacy, he cocked his head as if listening to the keyboard like a jazz pianist searching for the ideal harmonic progression; it gave the illusion that he was creating the music as he went along. This was especially true in the extraordinary 25th variation, where Denk seemed to collaborate with Bach in exploring a wholly new world of chromatic expression. This is probably the inspiration for the great largos that precede the final fugues in Beethoven’s Eroica  and Diabelli variations, but there are perhaps only a few passages of Mozart and Schubert that approach it for harmonic poignancy.

Denk describes the final variations as being like a brain on acid. He certainly conveyed the cumulative frenzy of this music, the quirky trills of the 28th followed by the incessant roulades of the 29th variations. I’m sure that Schiff and Hewitt were just as fast, and might even have played it more cleanly than Denk, but I don’t think they matched him for manic energy and breathless exhilaration. Again, his playing reminded me of a jazz pianist intoxicated by his own improvisatory skill.

And yet, I think it was the restrained intimacy of the quiet passages, such as the concluding aria, that was most moving. It was a quality he demonstrated in the encore that he seemed reluctant to give. He chose the slow movement of a Mozart piano sonata, K533, once again combining hushed delicacy with a relaxed rhythmic freedom. Classical musicians are required to be faithful to the score, but the best can sometimes fool us into thinking we’ve never heard it before, that the music is being created as we listen. Denk seems to be a master of the dissembler’s art.


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