Jeremy Denk at Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami – A Bach English Suite, Schubert’s D960 Piano Sonata, and a Ragtime filling

English Suite in G minor, BWV808
Scott Joplin & Scott Hayden
Sunflower Slow Drag
My Ladye Nevells Booke – The Passinge Mesures: the Nynthe Pavian
Suite 1922, Op.26 – Ragtime
William Bolcom
Three Ghost Rags – Graceful Ghost
Conlon Nancarrow
Two Canons for Ursula – Canon A
Wagner/Donald Lambert
Tannhäuser – Pilgrims Chorus
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960

Jeremy Denk (piano)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 31 March, 2016
Venue: Knight Concert Hall, Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami, Florida

Jeremy DenkPhotograph: Michael WilsonJeremy Denk seems to have difficulty making up his mind. This recital was originally scheduled to begin with an eclectic selection of pieces in which syncopation figures prominently, with a particular focus on Ragtime, with the second half to consist of a Fantasia by Haydn, Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata and Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy. A “revised program” insert announced that after intermission Denk would instead play Schubert’s final Piano Sonata. (Elsewhere during his current tour, Denk had substituted J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations at this point.)

There were further changes. After opening with the G-minor English Suite, emphasizing its rhythms, Denk announced that the remainder of the first half would be performed in a different order from the listing, also omitting (without explanation) Art Tatum’s arrangement of Vincent Youmans’s ‘Tea for Two’ (from No, No, Nanette) and two of Four Ragtime Dances by Charles Ives. Denk described what would follow as a “sort of iPod shuffle” about syncopation, illustrating his remarks with examples.

Denk began his ragtime excursion with a classic, Sunflower Slow Drag, and immediately contrasted it with Stravinsky’s Piano-Rag-Music, in which the elements of the genre are torn apart and reassembled in seemingly scattershot fashion, with irregular accents, pauses and changes of meter and tempo. The delightful dance rhythms of William Byrd, composed for the 16th-century virginal, were at best extremely remote ancestors to the jarring ‘Ragtime’ from Paul Hindemith’s Suite, which thundered out from Denk’s Steinway.

Continuing the pattern of contrasting pairings, Denk followed a sweetly lyrical account of William Bolcom’s delightful Graceful Ghost with a stunning performance of the first of Conlon Nancarrow’s Two Canons for Ursula, written for Ursula Oppens in 1988. Nancarrow is best-known for his Studies for Player Piano, each have a density and complexity beyond human capability. ‘Canon A’ employs a favorite Nancarrow device, separate voices layered in different tempos. Denk’s left-hand began, his right entering later, playing the same material faster (seven-fifths as fast), gradually catching up and then passing the slower hand, leaving it to finish: a brilliant tour de force. Finally, Donald Lambert’s arrangement of Wagner – a sedate statement of the melody, then a sudden burst into stride-piano style and an acceleration to a rousing climax.

In the introspective first movement of Schubert’s B-flat Sonata, the nobility of the opening idea persisted despite the interjection of an ominous bass trill. Denk moved on to the often-dissonant development (without observing the exposition repeat and thus losing the lead-back bars, the only place that the trill is heard fortissimo) where the conflict continues, lyricism prevailing over rumblings. The Andante, with its tolling effects, was not so funereal as to undermine its serenity, and the central section shone through as if suggesting redemption. The Scherzo was airy and delicate and nicely contrasted with the Trio’s darker mood. The Finale’s main subject was genially playful, and in one oddly rhythmic passage Denk gave a knowing gesture that seemed to link back to the earlier fare. The coda brought the recital to an exuberant conclusion. Denk did not offer an encore.

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