IN: Reviews

Contemplating Another Pianistic Denkmal

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“Boston audiences surely know that Jeremy Denk is one of the most intelligent, interesting and superbly equipped pianists anywhere today,” I wrote 13 years ago [HERE]; he also  enjoys a reputation for constructing thoughtful programs. A good writer on music, he presumably wrote the very full and expert but anonymous essays in the Celebrity Series booklet; he nearly always speaks briefly to audiences with a wit that carries over into his playing. The first half of his Saturday-night concert at Jordan Hall whimsically structured ten short pieces, alternating in pairs, by 19th-century and more contemporary women composers:

Clara Schumann: Romance, op. 21, no. 1
Tania León: Ritual

Cécile Chaminade: La lisonjera (The Flatterer), op. 50
Missy Mazzoli: Heartbreaker

Amy Beach: “In Autumn,” from Four Sketches, op. 15, no. 1
Meredith Monk: Paris

Louise Farrenc: Mélodie in A-flat major
Ruth Crawford Seeger: Study in Mixed Accents

Phyllis Chen: SumiTones
Amy Beach: “Dreaming,” from Four Sketches, op. 15, no. 3

The Romantic pieces often transpired in a grand expressive manner side by side with quiet tenderness, but these always contrasted with the paired moderns, which came across as forceful, insistent, even angry, and often pianistically brilliant. Typical of the latter, Tania León’s increasingly furious and bangy Ritual certainly sounded exciting. The pieces by Missy Mazzoli and Phyllis Chen similarly featured a lot of hammering repeated notes with alternating hands, some low-register, some top-of-the-piano riffs; Chen’s added spare textures, mixed dynamics, and Messiaen-like bird calls. Seeger’s brief Study in Mixed Accents roared as an octave etude, gnarly and stimulating as when I heard it a couple of months ago.

Jeremy Denk at Jordan Hall (Robert Torres photo)

Romance by Clara Schumann and the Mélodie by Louise Farrenc, both lovely short salon pieces, reminded one of the old bound collections, found in piano benches 100 years ago, that always included Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin as well as Gustav Lange and Ignace Leybach and François Thomé. Chaminade’s La lisonjera still sounds vibrant in those anthologies, and Denk offered it with such genial aplomb that it elicited a round of applause. (You can place this piece as stylistically comparable to Debussy’s early piano pieces like the Ballade and the Nocturne in D-flat Major, and remember that Chaminade’s Scarf Dance, too easily dismissed by the knowing ones, is in the same category. Expecting to hear Chaminade, I had hoped for one of her lesser-known works, such as the very substantial Sonata or the Album of children’s pieces.) The two pieces (1892) by Boston’s own Amy Beach included a somnolent but sometimes grandiose “Dreaming” (G-flat major, 12/8, Andante con molto espressione, says it all) and a frisky, thoroughly imaginative In Autumn, with an elegantly inspired chromatic harmony in F-sharp minor, almost too short. I was moved to look up Edward MacDowell’s “In Autumn” (Woodland Sketches, op. 51, no. 4), in the same key, that might even have taken inspiration from Beach’s four-years-earlier version.

The big items came after the intermission. Brahms’s Four Piano Pieces, op. 119 (1893) — three Intermezzi and a Rhapsody — for all their beloved familiarity do not reveal much about their idiosyncratic form nearly as much as they show in their late-Romantic, complexly diatonic harmony. Much of the time, their melodic lines hide within the texture, in which the idea of “intermezzo” really means “in the middle.” The Rhapsody, no. 4, is larger, more expansive, and free in form, definitely Allegro risoluto, but it also feels from time to time like a folksong. Jeremy Denk played these pieces not only with exquisite precision, peerless pianissimos, and loving care.

It was good to hear Schumann’s Phantasie op. 17, last. Denk spoke briefly about its formal significance, and its origin in the difficult year when Schumann and Clara Wieck, not yet married, had to remain apart. The booklet noted Schumann’s original titles for the three movements, suppressed in the various editions: I. Ruinen (Ruins); II. Triumphbogen (Triumphal Arch); and III. Sternenkranz (Starry Crown). Denk jumped into the massive work fearlessly and energetically, but with fine sensitivity in dynamics and expression; I would have asked for more contrast between slow and fast in the first movement, and a gentler tempo in the “Im Legenden-Ton” section. The marschmässig second movement (Denk reminded us that this seems like a grandchild of the second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 101 Sonata) and its relentless dotted rhythm came through in certain triumph, including the absolutely impossible last two pages, which earned another round of applause. The final movement, alternating surgingly emotional with contemplatively peaceful, reliably brought the evening to a calm, questioning close, as Denk reached out with a beautiful pianissimo.

The audience brought Denk back for a single encore, likewise in C major: the beautiful Heliotrope Bouquet slow rag, a joint composition (1907) by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin.

I need to add that I was slightly disappointed that Jeremy Denk, an inventive programmer, stuck to the standard Clara Schumann edition of the Phantasie, which Charles Rosen revealed just a few years ago to have been altered, etiolated, in its final measures by the composer just before the score was first published. The original ending, now restored to life and available, shows a cosmic difference that in my not-at-all humble opinion is much superior to the version that has been around for 186 years. But I freely admit that I have yet to meet a pianist who agrees with this view. I intend to amplify this discussion in a future posting.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. I love this review- deVoto shows his knowledge sharing Macdowell’s Autumn piece, same key, to Beach and as someone who started these odd pairings back in the 70s, my manager at CAMI threw a fit – but attitudes changed and when I got bookings, he settled down- and audiences today want Pops, or eclectic music
    We Americans have been doing it since Whitemen’s Aeolian send up, and Fiedler continued the tradition with POPS of course. I was lucky to have Northeastern University’s support in releasing CDs of Ruth Crawford, Clarke, Marion Bauer, Holocaust, Loeffler, unknown in the 70s and now they are trendy and appreciated – it’s wonderful go Denk!

    Comment by virginia eskin — December 12, 2023 at 10:49 am

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