A near-capacity crowd streamed into and around Ozawa Hall on the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood campus for a Wednesday night recital by pianist Jeremy Denk. He offered another massively ambitious, cunningly curated program, with the Rondo in a minor K.511 of Mozart, the Visions fugitives, Op. 22 of Prokofiev, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 109, and Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17. This recital took our collective breaths away and made time stand still.
Denk strode onto the stage in his customary déshabillé outfit of black pants and black shirt with shirttails untucked, and launched into the first piece. Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, K.511, features multiple repetitions of a melancholy a minor theme. Each repetition has increasingly detailed ornamentation, written down by the composer in exacting detail in a way that provides valuable insight into Mozart’s playing style. Denk played the initial theme with a slow lilt and a subtle rhythmic freedom, and he dispatched the steady stream of decorative eighth notes with an impressive range of dynamic shaping and shading, and there were striking changes of pianistic color when the major-key middle section arrived. He pulled off the ornamentation in the repeats and the integration of major and minor key material with the air of an improvisation, and the work ended with a beautifully shaped hush.
After the Mozart, Denk picked up a microphone to talk about the first half, describing his plan to mix pieces with a non-linear, fragmented relationship to time and a dreamlike air. In K.511, for instance, the principal theme’s recurrences fool you into thinking you know how each repetition will proceed — until Mozart goes on a harmonic detour and sends you off on a loop. Denk described the Prokofiev as an experiment in time, where each piece quickly establishes an atmospheric mood, sometimes two contradictory ones simultaneously, but the mood disappears before it settles in. He compared it with the Symbolist poetry of his Russian contemporaries, or the work of T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Denk observed that the Beethoven sonata opens with two surprisingly compact movements, the first featuring an abrupt shift from Vivace to a dreamy Adagio second subject where you don’t know where the beat is. The second movement is stormy but evanescent, and the theme-and-variations finale features a theme where a pulse finally arrives, with a sense of inexpressible joy.
From 1915 to 1917, Serge Prokofiev created 20 quirky, fleeting musical portraits of some of his friends. He played them for his friend, the poet Konstantin Balmont, who responded with the rhapsodic “In every fleeting vision, I see worlds, filled with the fickle play of rainbows.” This gave rise to the title of the cycle, Мимолётности (Mimolyotnosti), better known in French translation as Visions fugitives, Op. 22. I am now struck that the kaleidoscopic range of whimsy, melancholy, sarcasm, irony, and percussive energy makes for a compelling musical evocation of Prokofiev himself. Denk painted this musical portrait in vivid color, aggressively fast but with crystal-clear detail, ebbing and flowing in tempo and responding to every whimsical change of mood and dynamic. No. 2 Andante sparkled like a Debussy water-jet, the barcarolle of No. 6 Con eleganza rocked, the Stravinskian savagery of No. 14 Feroce impressed, as did the stratospheric moodiness of No. 17 Poetico. He replaced facial expressions, sometimes distractingly comical back in Jordan Hall in 2016 [HERE] with a set of more restrained and varied gestures and glances. The setting sun took part in the “fickle play,” glowing in the windows of Ozawa Hall and creating a delicate halo around Denk, adding a fleetingly magical visual effect to the musical wizardry.
In Beethoven’s enigmatic Piano Sonata in E Major, Op. 109, I sensed a misstep in the opening movement. Denk seemingly had gone too far in the contrast of tempo between the first theme (marked Vivace, but also ma non troppo or “Lively, but not too much”) and the Adagio second theme. He dispatched the opening theme so fast that he blurred the rapid-fire interplay of left and right hand, and the two sections lost a unanimity of pulse. The development, though, was marvelous, with a gorgeous slowly building crescendo over a series of repeated chords right before the recapitulation. And just before the coda, Denk sustained a low bass note long enough to hover over a steady climb up the scale. I have never heard another pianist manage to keep the sonic haze going for so long while playing the rising section with such crisp clarity.
The macabre second movement Prestissimo has fast changes of mood and expression, and in Denk’s hands, the ties to Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives became clear. The finale was magnificent: the theme received a hymn-like simplicity of treatment. The first variation, a barcarolle had nice sway, and the second variation’s pointillistic weirdness registered beautifully at blistering speed. The call-and-response figures in the third and fourth variations unfolded with model clarity. But the dazzling final variation took the prize; it’s a challenge to play as the right hand has to alternate between playing the movement’s theme in crisply separated eighth notes near the top of the register while maintaining a trill an octave lower. Denk made the eighth-note theme connect clearly and ring through the dense passagework beneath, a trick that many a master pianist can’t quite pull off. And the reprise of the tranquil theme gave the movement a Goldberg Variation-like sense of completeness, a fulfilling return to the beginning after a dazzling, time-turning array of inventions.
After the intermission, Denk took up the microphone again to say he was omitting the next piece promised on the program (Liszt’s solo piano arrangement of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte song cycle) while explaining why it was programmed in the first place. Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Op. 22 was inspired by a fundraising drive for a monument to Beethoven in his home town of Bonn. Denk demonstrated how Schumann’s opening movement derives from a deconstruction of the first two measures of the sixth and final song from Beethoven’s cycle, “Nimm sie hinn denn, dieser Lieder.” He played a bit from the Fantasy’s final movement which sounds like a quotation, and suggested that it was drawn from the slow movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. He did concede, though, that Beethovenian as the inspiration may have been, that the final product was distinctly and unquestionably Schumannian.
After that, Denk played the Fantasy with his distinctive mix of small-scale detail and large-scale architectural integrity. The first movement is a gushing torrent of passion expressing the composer’s feelings for the love of his life, Clara Wieck. Denk made all manner of deft variation in color and texture, with a remarkable freedom of tempo, at sometimes slowing significantly between major phrases and at others, rushing impetuously to the next idea. Lesser pianists can get lost in Schumann’s waves of decorative filigree and lose sight of the bigger picture. Denk carried off the passagework with painstaking attention to detail, but always in support of the principal theme and never swamping it, suggesting the hand of a veteran art song pianist. The second movement came across as an evanescent fairy tale march, wonderfully evocative of Schumann’s dreamy sound world, and the finale provided an even more stunning sense of purpose and momentum. The audience held on with remarkable patience over the last faint chord’s dying reverberations before rising enthusiastically to its feet.
Denk returned for two encores. The second movement Andante from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, K.545 was gently lyrical, and the repeats featured thoughtful, tasteful, playful ornamentation that Mozart himself would surely have admired. Then came Donald Lambert’s dementedly sacrilegious stride piano vision of the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser. Denk had played this in his recital at Jordan Hall in 2016. On Wednesday night, his detail work was even more astonishing, with the left hand striding at an impossibly fast yet deftly soft clip while the right hand twisted Wagner’s big-boned theme into a marvelous ragtime travesty. The Master of Bayreuth must be spinning in his grave, giggling all the while. The final encore brought the audience to a final whooping, hollering standing ovation in a fitting tribute to the way that Denk’s mix of intelligence and skill made two hours disappear.
After this program, Denk spends the rest of the month teaching master classes at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. In the next two weeks, Ozawa Hall will host concerts of music from the Leonard Bernstein song book, Mozart sonatas with Pamela Frank and Emanuel Ax, a program with Leon Fleisher and friends, and the Emerson Quartet playing Beethoven’s late string quartets.
James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.