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.