Denk closes Arsht season in style with deep Schubert and classical jazz

By Lawrence Budmen

Jeremy Denk performed Thursday night at the Arsht Center in Miami.

Jeremy Denk performed Thursday night at the Arsht Center in Miami.

Jeremy Denk is the epitome of a 21st-century musician. The American pianist combines stellar technique with fascinating interpretive instincts in wide-ranging repertoire. His enthusiasm for covering the byways as well as the mainstream of keyboard literature was on full display Thursday night in a recital at the Arsht Center, the concluding event of this season’s Knight Masterworks series.

Denk possesses pianistic firepower to burn. He can play with absolute accuracy and clarity at the fastest speeds. While his technical assurance is impressive, Denk’s sensitive touch and probing musical instincts alight his often fascinating readings of both familiar and less frequently heard scores.

In Bach’s English Suite No. 3, his jazzy tempos and crisp articulation brought fresh perspectives to the Prelude, Courante and Gavotte. In the Sarabande, he brought out the darkness below the singing melodic threads and the final Gigue was infused with sinew as well as lightness. This was not Bach for purists or period instrument aficionados but it was undeniably invigorating.

A set of ragtime-infused vignettes opened with an elegant traversal of Scott Joplin’s Sunflower Slow Drag. Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music rearranges and deconstructs the basic patterns of piano rags. Replete with off-kilter rhythms, the score played to Denk’s penchant for knuckle-busting pyrotechnics.

An excerpt from My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal Music by William Byrd provided a 17th-century interlude. Denk’s purity of tone and imaginative tracing of the theme and variations offered calm before the storm he conjured up in Hindemith’s Ragtime from 1922. Mixing strong elements of American jazz with cluster chords and thorny harmonics, Hindemith conceived a rhythmically wild and witty commentary on the song and dance crazes of the roaring 20s.

Denk brought sweetness and restraint to William Bolcom’s Grateful Ghost Rag.  Bolcom’s tribute to Joplin speaks in tones of sadness and grace. Conlon Nancarrow’s blues-tinged Canon imagines ragtime through the iconoclastic composer’s player-piano pressure cooker. With the left and right hands playing in different meters, Nancarrow’s Bach update was a fine exhibition of Denk’s technical acuity.

Donald Lambert’s “Pilgrims’ Chorus” from Tannhauser (after Wagner) opens with a quiet, straightforward statement of Wagner’s famous melody, which is then transformed into unbridled stride and boogie-woogie. It was great fun, especially when played with Denk’s verve and accomplished musicianship.

Considering Denk’s fervent championing of contemporary composers, one would not imagine the music of Franz Schubert would be an ideal match for his artistic sensibilities. His reading of Schubert’s Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major was all the more surprising for its idiomatic beauty and depth of emotion.

Like much late Schubert, the score is melodically rich and deeply moving. Taking a deliberate tempo, he spanned the long arc of the opening Adagio sostenuto. In the more animated episodes, often obscured inner lines were brought forward.

The heart of Denk’s performance was the Andante sostenuto which emerged both somber and uplifting. His beauty of tone and singing line never allowed the music to veer into funereal bathos. There was ample Viennese sparkle and charm in the Scherzo and final Presto. Denk brought pianistic poetry as well as mastery to Schubert’s valedictory keyboard masterpiece.

A standing ovation and cheers did not yield an encore and appropriately so. Denk’s Schubert performance was so intense that an additional vignette would have been superfluous.

The 2016-2017 season of the  Arsht Center Classical Series opens January 10, 2017 with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä playing works by Kalevi Aho, Beethoven and Sibelius.; 305-949-6722.

Posted in Performances

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Fri Apr 1, 2016
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