Denk brings poised artistry to a program of somber variations at the Kravis Center

By Kevin Wilt

Jeremy Denk performed Thursday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Jeremy Denk performed Thursday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Jeremy Denk brought a variation-filled program to the Regional Arts Series at the Kravis Center Thursday night in West Palm Beach. The entire program exhibited the acclaimed pianist’s masterful control of his instrument.

And control is the operative word. For most performers, control is synonymous with restraint. Most audience members imagine a musician practicing with a metronome, working to merge precision and proper tempo, resulting in a technically lean performance. For the rare performer like Denk, music lives beyond that threshold. His control of the material is a starting place for his interpretation, not an arrival point of a sterilized performance.

Denk opened the concert with Five Variations on Rule Britannia in D Major by Beethoven. In this brief work he immediately showcased a bright tone within a flexible tempo, making it clear he was deliberate in what he was saying. In the third variation, his fast playing was especially liquid.

Next was Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9. Like almost every piece on this program, it has a tinge, or sometimes a full bleed, of sadness, but in the delicate way at which Brahms is a master. The variations alternated between brisk and lyrical, with the third especially galloping. Brahms kept the sadness about his friend Schumann coloring each variation, with even the brightest moments not reaching actual joy. Denk paced Brahms’ Variations expressively, providing a natural sincerity and avoiding undue sentiment.

That same sincerity was also in Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17, which played counterpart to the Brahms. This is a score with a great many notes, and Denk handled all of them with the same secure poise he showed throughout the night. The last movement, perhaps more so than any other piece, seemed to strike directly at the heart with its melancholy. In Denk;s hands, the opening theme was the simplest, yet most arresting melody on the whole program.

The short first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109, offered one of the more playful moments of the concert, with quick mood changes. The second was more typical of Beethoven’s emotional power, while the third was another set of the evening’s somber variations. Even in the most simple, transparent moments of this last movement, Denk’s delicacy and control were prominent. Phrases that most musicians would play on autopilot were savored here, with Denk making sure each note sang out as needed to convey the music’s pathos

This playful Beethoven paired well with John Adams’ I Still Play, a work written for Denk in honor of Nonesuch Records founder and Denk collaborator Bob Hurwitz. A short, curious piece, which, like Adams’ string quartet concerto, Absolute Jest, it plays in the sandbox of other composers to Adams’s clear enjoyment. Adams here toys with fragments and progressions borrowed from Bach and Beethoven, allowing Denk to provide a whimsical spin on a familiar language.

Denk closed the evening with an encore of the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, as arranged by American stride pianist Donald Lambert. The cool ease Denk demonstrated in the Romantic repertoire throughout the evening was just as comfortably present here in his rocket-fast jazz style. It was a roaring way to end a somber concert.

Kevin Wilt is assistant professor of music and composer-in-residence at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. His music can be found at


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Fri Dec 7, 2018
at 4:22 pm
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