IN: Reviews

Denk’s Dyspneic Default


Can it really be the case that hip explanatory pianist Jeremy Denk’s 15 minutes are up? At his Rockport Festival recital Thursday night, early on in each of his generally pushed, slightly imprecise performances (the standup ones also), I thought, eesh, is this really the guy the New Yorker a few months ago branded the “Charles Rosen of Generation X”?

(A preposterous fancy, unworthy of all parties involved; I so hope it wasn’t uttered by the magazine’s fine critic Alex Ross.)

Beforehand, Denk could be heard whaling away on the Wanderer Fantasy in the green room. Maybe a good sign, I supposed in the hallway; he’s that into it. When he appeared onstage, to explain his reordering of the listed opening pair of Mozart sonatas, plus subbing of scheduled Beethoven’s Tempest with smörgås from his published program, the vibe became impromptu.

The emphasis in K.533’s simple-sounding Allegro was Mozart’s faintly hysterical wit (more Hulce than Haydn; Denk seriously gets that aspect): dueling hands followed by amusingly enforced conflict resolution, all presented with considerable inflection and dramatized explaining. Arguably excessive. The Andante was more wistful than customary and the recycled Rondo slyer and quieter as well. Yet everything was a little indefinite, clarity sacrificed for comedy-drama. Denk doesn’t mug, not directly anyway. But like his blurbs, all was a touch rushed, smart points blurred. And while the famously mortality-shocked K.310 had its restlessness superbly enacted, Denk’s hands and the music’s lines and voices alike hitting their marks, synch again was imperfect and the sonata overall felt speedy and untragic. It is true that Denk’s low interest in elegance and savor does make some other Mozart performances sound porcelainized, almost wan.

The second half of the recital began with a portion of Denk’s recent music history tutorial—a smartphone on music shuffle, he has said—one covering harmonic progression, he noted (D to G, major and minor). The Byrd Ninth Pavan is from a large keyboard workout book, this particular cut featuring dancy variations whose agogics Denk finds at times raglike. It sounded cluttered to someone who learned the pieces from Gould. The following Bach Sarabande (Fifth English Suite) was a still moment in space and made for a good respite. The lesson’s conclusion was wonderfully weird Mozart, his Gigue K.574, which can have much charm and musicality of phrase in addition, but here was mostly coked-up. By now I half expected Denk to start using his righthand forefinger for key-pointing à la Chico.


Now, that may sound like a vote for sternness, but Denk’s bobbing and weaving, and attention to works’ strange humors, are just fine. So is the Bill Simmons supersmart-sports-pal-at-the-bar role (for my review of his Goldbergs, my musicology date commented “His persona is of a regular guy who happens to have a lot of musical knowledge and skills. … gives his audience the sense that they’re included. But … the seeming boundless energy, though highly attractive and effective in itself, became too much of a good thing.”) No, it’s the regular small-scale smudging, coupled with the short-of-breath, sleeve-grabbing vibe, that detracts.

To further darn with faint praise, the Wanderer Fantasy contained many lovely passages of lyrical singing. It’s never seemed to me great Schubert (that unsavably klutzy fugue) even when more cleanly played, but Denk gave it his best shot of power for the mightily roused Shalin Liu house.

The encore was the calm 13th Goldberg Variation, more relaxed, and as sometimes is the situation, that’s where the recital might more profitably have commenced.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I am sorry, but I have to agree with David Moran’s assessment, as well as his comment that perhaps Denk’s 15 minutes are up. Nothing personal, but I always felt that Denk was a young pianist with talent who became famous because of his flash, glibness and eagerness to both please and deconstruct at the same time. The same can be said of his writing. But I guess that didn’t stop the MacArthur Foundation for dubbing him a “genius.” Who said “I’ll cry all the way to the bank?” But I think Liberace was a truly great pianist, and his fame was deserved and long lasting. There are many similar examples from previous eras, such as Daniel Steibelt, who enjoyed his 15 years of fame around the turn of the 19th century. Anybody hear of him now?

    Comment by Mark Kroll — July 5, 2016 at 10:00 am

  2. I was surprised to learn Denk just turned 46; seems more youthful, in all senses.

    Comment by david moran — July 5, 2016 at 11:12 am

  3. With due respect to the learned critic and author, as well as to one of Boston’s most illustrious scholar-harpsichordists, I must weigh in with a differing opinion. Denk is a remarkable, unique artist who is equally adept in Byrd, Bach, Ives, Ligeti, Mozart and Schubert (as well as many others). One can quibble with some of his interpretive choices, but his technique is up to almost any challenge, his omnivorous curiosity is displayed in his programming choices, and his comfort and confidence on stage all combine to offer the audience a truly original artist. One might be put off by his strange stage presence (the Gumby-like head rotating outward, appearing to survey or even challenge his audience), but the actual playing is of a very high order, as is the mind behind his choices. I doubt his 15 minutes are up. In purely piano terms, he may not possess the most beautiful or varied sound, but perhaps he values things less pianistically tangible- like structure, architecture and rhetoric.

    Comment by rlhevinne — July 5, 2016 at 7:18 pm

  4. Thanks for this balancing advocacy, which I generally share(d); Denk’s values are clear and worthy.

    >> the actual playing is of a very high order

    Were you at this recital?

    Comment by david moran — July 5, 2016 at 10:31 pm

  5. I too applaud rlhevinne’s excellent and highly perceptive comments, and eloquently written as well. Your points are all well taken.

    Comment by Mark Kroll — July 6, 2016 at 5:36 am

  6. Yes, I was at this performance.

    Comment by rlhevinne — July 6, 2016 at 7:56 am

  7. This review appears to have been written by a reviewer who went to the concert hunting for a Snark. He certainly found one; whether the hunter caught the Snark, or the Snark caught the hunter, is another question.

    I’m very glad that rlhevinne was at the concert, because I wasn’t, and I’m relieved to hear a description that differs markedly from the ones given by Moran and Kroll, which do not describe anything like any Denk concert I have been to. I have been to a lot of them over the last ten years or so, at the Gardner and Jordan Hall, and every one has been at least enjoyable and rewarding, and most have been much more; exhilarating, exhausting, and even elevating. There are few pianists on the planet whose performances I would rather attend. I own nearly all of his recordings, and go back to them faithfully without ever losing interest. I am listening to him play Ives right now. I also think he is a very fine writer, always original but never merely novel, able to write at several levels simultaneously, a playful mood richening a deeper current without obscuring it. Others could take lessons from him.

    Which is why I say that all this stuff about 15 minutes of fame is, well, I promised myself I would be moderate in my speech, but then found I had no words left. Mark Kroll’s comments on his career path seem to accuse him of both wilfull obscurity and crowd-pleasing venality, a peculiar combination. I suppose there must be something to this; his recording of Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante with Jennifer Frautschi on Naxos probably had him crying all the way to the bank. And his recording of the two Ives sonatas probably bought him a second Maserati. Or maybe he just blew it all on bad clothes.

    All these accusations and implications of glibness, facility, and self-indulgence are completely off the mark when applied to Denk. They don’t go completely to waste, however, as they are perfectly apt when applied to Mark Kroll’s comments, and this review.

    Comment by SamW — July 7, 2016 at 8:02 am

  8. SamW: “Mark Kroll’s comments on his career path seem to accuse him of both wilfull obscurity and crowd-pleasing venality, a peculiar combination. I suppose there must be something to this; his recording of Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante with Jennifer Frautschi on Naxos probably had him crying all the way to the bank. And his recording of the two Ives sonatas probably bought him a second Maserati. Or maybe he just blew it all on bad clothes.”


    Having attended this recital, and being a big fan of Denk, I’d like to add a few thoughts to the colorful ones above. First, the contrast between his sublime, incomparable Celebrity Series recital in April – one of the most remarkable piano recitals I’ve ever heard – and the performance last Thursday night was kinda like the difference between Pedro Martínez’s 4-seam fastball and his changeup…only the other way around. Rockport felt flung, over the top – much of it flew by, details ablur. To my ears, the outer movements of the Mozarts suffered the most – especially the F major’s 1st movement ‘can you top this?’ that Denk had just elucidated so brilliantly! – and like Mr. Kroll I felt surprisingly little of the A minor’s tragedy, gravitas, or even, at Denk’s tempi, urgency. I also thought the pianist left much of the Wanderer’s dramatic narrative untold, though his fingers are quite fine. Thursday’s Byrd 9th Pavan was baffling, too, in light of the much more compelling take in April’s syncopation survey.

    Still, the instant Denk began his customary Goldberg variation encore, one immediately remembered how extraordinary his playing can be. What serenity, what luminous beauty! Where had they been hiding?

    Onto the review: although I agree with almost every detail of David Moran’s assessment of the playing, I myself flinched a little at the snarky veer towards the artist’s career – ’15 minutes’ and all that. To his credit, the reviewer was subsequently quick to acknowledge rlhevinne’s spot-on advocacy of Denk’s distinctive, worthy values, as did Mark Kroll.

    The bottom line for me: I really look forward to more from Jeremy Denk. I think he’s quite special and always worth hearing but, to judge from the six recitals I’ve attended, not always at his best. Then again, neither was Pedro.

    Comment by nimitta — July 7, 2016 at 10:31 am

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