Pianist Jeremy Denk tackles two epic works by Ives and Bach

By David Fleshler

Jeremy Denk performed music of Ives and Bach Sunday afternoon at Gusman Concert hall.

If classical music tends to attract serious listeners, the pianist Jeremy Denk’s recital Sunday in Miami was for really serious listeners.

He programmed just two works: Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Let other pianists break things up with Liszt or Chopin; Denk would perform two formidable works in a challenge to both the audience and himself.

Denk, who released a recording of the Ives work last year, has established himself as something of a musical intellectual, but without the cobwebby, stodgy baggage carried by that term. His enthusiasm for the knotty, craggy Ives work, less frequently heard than the composer’s Concord Sonata (No. 2), was apparent from the beginning as he walked on stage with a microphone and a plan to help members of the audience unfamiliar with the piece make sense of its procession of church hymns, ragtime and apparent cacophony.

“Probably for many of you this is the first live performance you’ll hear of the Ives sonata,” he said to the audience at the University of Miami’s Gusman Hall. He explained how it was based on the story of a Connecticut boy who left the farm to see the world, demonstrating some of the old songs and hymns found in it, such as Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight and What a Friend We Have in Jesus.

Denk, who performed as part of the Sunday Afternoons of Music series, gave a performance that reflected his enthusiasm for the work, displaying intelligence tinged with humor, with an iron-fingered keyboard technique that could turn his intentions into reality.

Although he didn’t minimize the work’s complexity, he had a knack for pulling a melodic thread, no matter how slender, from the dense, clanking chords that surrounded it. He played with an air of spontaneity, bringing maximum drama to moments such as the time a dense, pounding passage suddenly gives way to a simple melody, like emerging from a forest into a sunlit clearing. In the ragtime interludes, his shoulders rolled and he bounced up and down on the piano bench as if he were performing in a New Orleans saloon.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations, consisting of 30 variations on an opening theme, is a keyboard masterpiece rarely heard in South Florida. Although it may seem to have little in common with the Ives sonata that would be composed about 175 years later, both pieces engage in rapid contrasts in mood, from the most hushed introspection to thumping exuberance, and both bristle with technical difficulties for the performer.

Denk’s playing was extremely clean, transparent and logical, without degenerating into the mechanical production heard in some performances of Bach. From the opening Aria, he showed a special feeling for Bach’s melodic writing. His performance of the lyric 13th variation had a songlike quality, flowing with a natural rhythm that seemed free of the metronomic drive of the other movements. In the long, slow 25th variation, sometimes known as the black pearl, he brought out the unusual harmonies without losing the melodic thread.

But he also brought extroverted energy to the fast movements, articulating the notes with precision and a feeling for where the music was going. Aside from some fleeting lack of clarity in a couple of rapid variations, he had no trouble with the work’s technical demands in this bravura performance.


Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Mon Apr 18, 2011
at 3:15 pm
No Comments