I’ve heard plenty of piano recitals in my time by some of the best of the grand old men and women of the piano. This one, with Jeremy Denk at Mass. College of Art, presented by the Gardner Museum on January 23, was one of the best by the younger generation. I first heard Jeremy Denk this past summer at the “Berg and His World” Festival at Bard College, where he was one of those who made the chamber music programs positively glow. And I bought his stunning recording of the Ives Sonatas 1 and 2; nobody in recent years has recorded these crazy works better (even though I still remember the first recording ever of Sonata 1, an unsurpassed performance in the 1950s by William Masselos).
While awaiting the completion of it’s Renzo Piano addition, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has temporarily moved its concert series to the Massachusetts College of Art a block away. Sunday’s program at the Pozen Auditorium filled the medium sized hall- an approximately 400 seat rectangular box with an interesting plaster frieze and a warm acoustic. Jeremy Denk chose a program in two solid halves: György Ligeti’s two books of études, and Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.
I don’t know them from looking at the score, but I doubt that the thirteen Ligeti études are as successful when played together as a bunch as they would be played selectively. There are too many that are too similar in sound and intent: many are cast in the mold of moto perpetuo (this is true of Chopin’s études as well, but it’s not something you object to), with melodic notes poked out sfz here and there, and too many range too quickly and too frequently from the bottom of the piano to the top, or vice versa. But as individuals they are often terrific as well as terrifying. Denk explained that No. 1, “Désordre,” with the right hand on white keys and the left on black, introduces gradually increasing perturbations of the texture from togetherness to chaos, first in octaves in each hand, then with chordal bunches, and a moto perpetuo of rippling single notes in between. In No. 4, “Fanfares,” I was fascinated by the eight-note ostinato scales, like C-D-E-F-G-A-Bflat-B, all in an amazing sotto voce. For No. 5, “Arc-en-ciel,” Denk spoke of Bill Evans’s piano style, which seemed farfetched to me, nor did I hear any rainbow; I heard more of Poulenc’s sound, but above all Denk’s superb control of ultra-pianissimo. I was puzzled by the title of No. 8, “Fém,” though I remembered that this word, without the accent, is Norwegian for “five,” which could explain why so much of the texture is in layers of parallel fifths. Nor was I able to figure out, just from hearing the piece, why No. 10 was called “Der Zauberlehrling,” the title of Goethe’s tale about the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but it is full of furious repeated notes, and ends with a nice bang very similar to Debussy’s Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk. No. 11, “En Suspens,” is not full of suspense but of tonal suspensions, which came through with a fine sotto voce dialogue. No. 13, “L’escalier du diable,” is for a club-footed devil climbing irregular steps in upward chromatic scale segments, over and over again. This étude seemed like the biggest of the set; it seemed to summarize some of the exotic techniques that had gone on before, but it was also like an addendum to the traditional group of twelve that Chopin, Liszt, Alkan, and Debussy chose. And yet with all this pianistic spectacle, which Jeremy Denk brought out heroically and fearlessly, one still has the impression that Ligeti himself was not a pianist. I kept making mental comparisons to today’s composers who are pianists: William Bolcom’s first book of études (recorded by the composer on Advance Records) and Twelve New Etudes (recorded by Marc-André Hamelin; Pulitzer Prize, 1988) and to Marc-André Hamelin’s own Twelve Études in all the minor keys (recorded by the composer last year).
J. S. Bach’s Aria with Thirty Variations, known as the “Goldberg” Variations, is such an overpowering masterpiece of design and technique and drama and lyricism all rolled into one, that it is easy to forget that Bach wrote very few works in variation form. There are the early chorale partitas for organ, written when Bach was just a teenager; the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch for organ, a late work; two magnificent essays in continuous variations, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ and the Chaconne in D minor from the second Partita for unaccompanied violin; and there are a very few free ostinato movements here and there, like the opening chorus of Cantata 78. I think that’s about it for Bach’s variations. But the Goldberg Variations dwarf every other example of variation form before Bach or after him until the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and they are also probably the most technically difficult keyboard work written by anybody before Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata.
There’s not much that I could say about Jeremy Denk’s performance beyond every possible word of praise. I especially appreciated the different underlining of the canonic voices in the repeated halves of the variations — always enough, never too much; the loving cantabile that dominated the expressive variations like the three in minor mode; the overall abundance of confident delight in everything. As one who grew up with Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording — it’s still available and still amazing — I was especially happy to compare this performance of today with Gould’s of half a century ago. Gould’s is more aggressive and more variable in mood; Denk’s, less boisterous but not a whit less forceful and bold, and with the widest range of expression. I hope that Jeremy Denk makes a CD of this work. His performance was certainly the most interesting I ever heard in person and I won’t forget it.
Jeremy Denk maintains a blog here. I’m glad that he has this kind of contrast with his performing time; and he shows himself to be an able and discerning writer as well as a top-rank performer.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.