Originally scheduled to perform earlier in the summer, highly touted American pianist Jeremy Denk was at the Steinway in the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport Monday night. As to his pairing the Concord Sonata of Charles Ives together with the Goldberg Variations of Bach, there could be nothing more irresistible. During his playing of the Concord with civil twilight settling in through that hall’s celebrated grand window, I wondered had I just wandered into the hall would I have thought it was Ives I was hearing. Regarding the Bach, I wondered about the return of the Goldberg theme, the Aria, and how it felt strangely isolated from the preceding thirty variations. Perhaps Denk meant it as an echo, possibly an exceptional close to an exceptional program.
Of note, the order given in the brochure had the Bach preceding the Ives, which Denk corrected, the more typical chronological ordering losing out to other factors, among them opening with the less-known and ending with the more familiar.
There appeared to be a strong correlation between my observing Denk’s body language for visual signs of intent and meaning and my listening closely and openly for cues that enunciated his pianistic and interpretive viewpoint. Ives became liquescent, its cultural ties surrendered to an immense pianism heavily flavored with European flair. In a kind of role reversal, Bach became muscular, its courtly leanings giving way to an American verve.
As with the New England transcendentalists, Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcotts, and Thoreau, each representing the Concord’s four movements respectively, one can certainly argue for individuality both in seeking the truth and experiencing emotion, of course as long as it is within moral bounds. Conflating the multifariousness of Ives, as Denk accomplished, unfortunately did little to expose the “greatness” ascribed to the composer’s humongous work. Juxtapositions of philosophical narrative with down-to-earth sentimentality along with juxtapositions of utter density with childlike utterance merged into a polished affair, at times more resembling the likes of Debussy and Ravel than the man who prefers to “eat my chicken whole.”
Again, referring to role reversals, while Denk fired up on extraterrestrial cylinders, refining Ives to a more or less uniform surface, this superbly equipped pianist hardly allowed Bach more than a moment’s respite in a performance running 56 minutes. Here, Denk’s world became one of continuous—and too regularly emphatic—mood swings. There was never any real sense of settling in, and that became fatiguing.
Though the expected spaces between variations were virtually absent, Denk’s conveyance of urgency achieved an overall flow to the Goldberg that was stimulating. And it must be acknowledged that, throughout the evening, moments of incomparable playing lit up the room. There were more prolonged stretches of breakthrough playing in the nine canons of the Goldberg set where Jeremy Denk found truth (in concept and construct) and delivered emotion (of spiritual brilliance).
Most welcome was his encore, the 14th piece from Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6; plentifully pedaled, it was delicately and dreamily plush.