PCM6: Jeremy Denk plays Piano Sonatas by Scriabin (Black Mass), Bartók and Beethoven (Opus 111)

Piano Sonata No.9, Op.68 (Black Mass)
Piano Sonata
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111

Jeremy Denk (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 24 August, 2015
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Jeremy DenkPhotograph: www.opus3artists.comA friend from the States, a very keen Jeremy Denk fan, told me (with a slight warning inflection) that this pianist belongs firmly to the tradition of American classical-music educative communicators, and this was eloquently demonstrated in his lucid chats with Petroc Trelawny during his Proms Chamber Music recital. With his gift of the gab, he’s also a natural blogger (his site is called Think Denk – geddit?), and a cursory glance reveals him to be epically discursive. Alongside his appearances this side of the Atlantic, he’s also notched up a couple of BBC Radio 3 Building a Library top billings with his recordings of the Goldbergs and Opus 111.

The Denk star is firmly in the ascendant, then, and listening to his decisive talk and the clarity of his playing, you wouldn’t necessarily think that the mystic/occult tendencies of Scriabin’s ‘Black Mass’ Sonata would be Denk’s cup of tea, but it turned out that the music benefitted hugely from his light hand on the fantasy tiller (incidentally, one of the performance directions in the score reads avec une douceur de plus en plus caressante et empoisonnée, which does not mean “with a sweetness becoming more and more caressing and fishy”), his pragmatic engagement with its moment of high drama and his flexible handling of the motto theme kept this hot-air balloon from bursting at the seams. I should mention that I have an aversion to Scriabin’s music (with the exception of the Piano Concerto, an early work of great charm), but if anyone could guide me through the Sonata’s airless hyper-expressivity and tonal dissolution, it would be Denk.

By contrast, Bartók’s Piano Sonata was a blast of fresh air. In a score that has blizzards of different time-signatures it was a measure of Denk’s attractively insouciant but concentrated sense of rhythm that he made them all register. It’s also a work of furiously percussive potential, and Denk skillfully sustained its momentum away from mere bang-fest. The way he let the slow movement’s bleak spaciousness keep in touch with its simple framework was a marvel of subtle expression, and the speed he set for the Finale impressively left room for the increase in tempo and tension in the closing pages.

It was clear why Denk’s recording of Opus 111 has been so well received. For all the changes of beat and expressive harmony of the first two works, Beethoven’s angularity and asymmetry in the first movement were marked and contrasted magnificently with the steady accumulation of intensity in the second-movement ‘Arietta’ variations. His sense of narrative was noble and secure and never got in the way of the music. Pulse and tempo were joined at the hip, and his playing of the music’s gathering Zen-like abandonment after the relative formality of the opening variants was deeply satisfying. It was a pity, though, that an area in the middle of the piano sounded woefully out of tune. Denk’s (unnecessary, I thought) encore was the slow movement from Mozart’s K533 Sonata (the one that has its finale as K494).

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