Turning the classic 19th-century piano recital on its head, MacArthur genius, NPR darling, and blogger pianist Jeremy Denk gave a cunningly curated, absolutely packed Celebrity Series recital at Jordan Hall. Encompassing Bach, seven ragtime pieces, and Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960, the stunningly executed program embodied musical syncopation or the glory of the off-beat.
Denk took the stage in an unconventional outfit—untucked black shirt with no tie and top button open, giving the shirt tail the sense of coat tails over black pants. He took a microphone and explained that the program would begin with the English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808, then go through a set of seven ragtime and syncopated pieces in a single arc. His manner as he played was distinctive. His arms and hands showed remarkable economy of motion, but his head and eyes grabbed one’s attention. He swayed and dipped back and forth, often twisting with mouth ajar to one side, as though he was about to tell a joke in the midst of the performance, but with his eyes closed most of the time.
The Prelude took off at a brisk pace that reminded me of an over-caffeinated Glenn Gould. But Denk deployed plenty of rhythmic flexibility, slowing a bit here, speeding up a touch there, giving each line a constantly evolving dynamic shape, so that one tune would shrink down as another one came out. As a result, each voice was imbued with its own personality, made more recognizable, and Bach’s counterpoint came across with remarkable clarity at dizzying speeds.
The Allemande by comparison was stately and measured, but one voice chased after another in canonical counterpoint with lovely shaping to maintain separation of the voices. The Courante possessed another outburst of nerves, with impressive variations of speed and dynamic. In the Sarabande, Denk maintained the continuity of Bach’s long melodic lines. I had never heard this movement as an arioso occurring over an irregular chord progression, so this was a revelation to me, and it had a rhythmic freedom that made it sound like it was improvised on the spot. Gavotte I sounded like a Bach two-part invention, with deft (and I suspect improvised) ornamentation on the repeats and wonderful embracing of the weirdness of the bass line. Gavotte II came across as an oasis of tranquility, making Gavotte I’s return all the weirder. For the final Gigue, Denk again pushed an impossibly fast pace, keeping the voices remarkably distinct. An abrupt pull back in dynamics in the repeat of the B section revealed new opportunities for even more delicate shading, and drew gasps of amazement and vigorous applause from the Jordan Hall crowd.
After a moment to put the music desk back into the piano, Denk introduced the second “set” as an “iPod shuffle” of ragtimes, parodies of rags, celebrations of syncopation and the off-beat. He also explained his rearrangement of the program, with some omissions from the printed concert order. He gave brief descriptions of each of the pieces, which proved quite evocative in performance. Laid out in the program to suggest seven movements, the seven pieces cleverly paralleled the Bach. Some of the interpretive touches in specific movements of the Bach found their way into specific rags, though Denk confessed after the concert that there was no intent to frame a first half of fearful symmetries.
He led with the “Sunflower Slow Drag,” a recognizable classic attributed to Scott Hayden and the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin. Denk used a restrained dynamic and bouncy, playful phrasing to remind us about classic ragtime form, with its melodies’ emphasis on the weak beats or off-beats in the measure and its rhythmically steady left-hand bass. In some ways, the rag was played like a Bach dance movement, with more of the phrase shaping for contrapuntal clarity, and a similar tasteful ornamentation in the repeats. The B section had deliriously manic accelerations and teasing slow-downs, without ever losing Joplin’s polyrhythmic complexity. He followed with Igor Stravinsky’s “Piano-Rag Music,” which he described as a Cubist deconstruction of an American rag, to be played with martini grasped firmly in hand. With its musical quotes from “The Entertainer” and its spiky, impishness, it felt like the kind of thing that would be written if Scott Joplin and Serge Prokofiev had a love-child, and that love-child composed while on an acid trip.
Next was Renaissance master William Byrd’s “Nynthe Pavian” from My Ladye Nevell’s Booke of Virginal Music, nicknamed “The Passinge Measures” for the recurring bass line that prefigures the Baroque passacaglia or chaconne. Byrd can sometimes invite dry, earnest performances, but Denk made Byrd swing stylishly, preserving that improvisatory air, lurching through the “sailor’s hornpipe” variation as though on a ship at sea, and making the final variation a supersonic tour de force. He described Paul Hindemith’s “Ragtime” from 1922, the Suite for Piano, Op. 26, as a work for a player piano machine gone mad. Denk explained that Hindemith’s performance marking for this movement translates from German roughly as, “forget everything your piano teacher ever told you,” and he tore through this work with lively barrelhouse vigor.
Denk returned to a more restrained demeanor for “Graceful Ghost,” from William Bolcom’s Three Ghost Rags. Denk played this tribute to Bolcom’s father with suave grace, with stunningly brooding, skillfully timed music near the end.
Conlon Nancarrow spent much of his compositional career creating music of such absurd contrapuntal complexity that it could only be played by player pianos. His Canon was written for a human pianist (Ursula Oppens), but the complexity prompted the only sheet music used all evening. In J.S. Bach’s most complicated canons, you can hear a theme presented in three parts, with one part playing twice as fast and one part twice as slow at the same time. Nancarrow created a work in which the right hand is sadistically called upon to play the theme 140% as fast as the left hand. I certainly can’t tell if Denk negotiated the work correctly or not, but the music had a brain-exploding kind of rhythmic complexity.
Denk finished with Donald Lambert’s take on the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. It begins with a relatively straight reading of Wagner’s tune, so famous that Elmer Fudd sings “O Bwunnhide, you’re so wuvwy” to it in the legendary cartoon “What’s Opera Doc?” Lambert then has the daft genius to turn the main tune into a syncopated ragtime melody, a twist that I’m sure has the Meister of Bayreuth spinning in his grave. Denk tore into at impressive speed, with the stride piano-style left hand marching up and down the chord progressions with remarkable accuracy, drawing amused giggles from the audience through the performance and uproarious whooping and hollering when he was finished (well, maybe that was me doing the whooping).
I am reminded of descriptions of the classic 19th-century piano recital, a style still practiced by Dubravka Tomšič when she comes to town. The first half of a recital typically offers masterworks of the piano recital like music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, presented with the staid dryness of musical “spinach.” The second half would feature encore pieces, variations on popular songs and operatic airs, and feats of pianistic legerdemain to wow the audiences. Denk turned this classic recital model on its head, offering crowd-pleasers in the first half and Franz Schubert’s colossal Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 for the second half (in other programs on this tour, he has also offered Bach’s Goldberg Variations for the second half.)
But as much as Schubert’s final completed composition might seem a stark contrast from the ragtime set, in this performance Denk moved from strength to strength. He played the massive first movement Molto moderato at a brisk pace, but with a stunningly evocative bell-like tone for the opening bars, gorgeous dynamic shaping that allowed you to hear the same teasing interplay between the hands that characterized the Bach Prelude and the Lambert (and you inevitably heard Schubert’s syncopations in the tune and the off-beat accents all the more keenly). Denk skipped the giant exposition repeat of the first movement—perhaps just as well, given the lateness of the evening. Throughout the first movement, he deployed a compelling variation in articulation and inflection to give each section its own distinctive shape and profile. In Denk’s hands, with the main tune always prominent, distinct, and clear, a principal accompaniment part that stayed a little below the tune, and subsidiary material that stayed lower still. Even at the softest of dynamics with tune and accompaniment parts switching between the hands rapidly, Denk managed to preserve this hierarchy of sound, marking the touch of a veteran Lieder pianist.
The second movement Andante sostenuto was gorgeously shaped at very quiet dynamics. The most striking thing here was his ability to judge transitions between sections, so that a new subject seemed to grow organically out of what came before. The movement never lost sight of the singing line, no matter what rumbling bass interjections or stark sonic landscapes lay around it. And Schubert’s miraculous shift from C-sharp minor to C major in the recapitulation was handled with beautifully judged timing. For the Scherzo, he played with delicacy and the same nervous energy that permeated the fast movements of the Bach. The middle section Trio stood out for its syncopations. And the final Allegro ma non troppo moved forward with a steady inevitability, breezily quick, making much of the notes repeating like an idée fixe and the off-beat accents, and exploding into a blistering coda that brought the audience to its feet.
After an ambitious program like this, many pianists would play a rabble-rousing, knuckle-busting show stopper for an encore. But Denk offered a glowingly hushed, beautifully restrained rendition of variation 13 from J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. It was a jewel of a performance, different in its shape and conception from the live performance at the Gardner Museum [here] or the Nonesuch recording that made him an international star. It formed the perfect ending, though, to a marvelous off-beat, upside-down masterpiece of a recital.
Denk continues to tour this program throughout the United States for the next month, with an appearance at Carnegie Hall on April 17th. On that same day, the Celebrity Series returns with its next classical presentation, with the Jerusalem String Quartet and pianist Inon Barnatan at Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory.