Review: In Spivey Hall recital and master class, pianist Jeremy Denk shows power of “letting go”

Jeremy Denk

By Mark Gresham

On Saturday night, the illustrious pianist Jeremy Denk performed a solo recital of music by Bartok, Liszt, Bach and Beethoven at the likewise illustrious Spivey Hall at Clayton State University. The night before, he taught a master class to four eager pianists from the region who auditioned for the opportunity.

The Friday master class was a chance to see and hear Denk spontaneously respond to the playing of others, and hopefully to get into his head in terms of how his observations and suggestions translate into his own music making. Beyond his skills at the piano, Denk has been articulate about life and music in both nationally published articles and in his own copious blog, Think Denk: The Glamorous Life and Thoughts of a Concert Pianist.

Several observations from the master class — such as Denk’s attention to balance and emphasis of detail within a phrase, or thinking in terms of complete gesture — are too extensive to try to detail here. But a commonality worth noting was how, in different ways, he encouraged the students to “let go” and play. As performers, we can often get in the way of ourselves, the fearful, self-critical part of our mind causing internal tension that manifests physically in ways that make playing more stressful and exhausting.

This ability to “let go” is audible in Denk’s playing and observable in his body movements. Tellingly, when he placed his hands on the keyboard to demonstrate a passage, the difference in character of the sound extracted from the instrument was electrifyingly noticeable, taking on a color and sparkle that was like opening a window’s blinds to sunlight.

The recital on Saturday opened with an announcement from Sam Dixon, Spivey Hall’s executive and artistic director, and Clayton State University President Tim Hynes about the establishment of the Spivey Hall Endowment for Piano Artistry, with a major gift to the CSU Foundation from Jeffrey Adams and Susan Hunter, both charter members of Friends of Spivey Hall. Not surprisingly, Adams and Hunter were also the sponsors of the recital.

Denk kicked off with the vigorous, rhythmically sizzling Sonata, Sz. 80 of Bela Bartók. Four works by Franz Liszt followed, the first three played as a set, opening with the Prelude on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” S. 179, based on a theme from the church cantata of the same name by J.S. Bach. Two pieces from “Années de pèlerinage. Deuxième année: Italie” (“Years of Pilgrimage, Second Year: Italy”), S. 161 followed: “Sonetto 123 del Petrarca, I vidi in terra angelici costumi,” a transcription for solo piano of Liszt’s own setting of that sonnet for voice and piano, and “Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata.”

The first half of the recital ended with one of Liszt’s transcriptions, “Isolden’s Liebestod,” S. 447, a transcription for piano of Isolde’s final aria “Mild und leise” from Wagner’s opera ”Tristan und Isolde,” onto the beginning of which Liszt took liberty to tag the four-bar motto of the love duet from Act II.

For the second half, the pianist paired Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B minor from Book I of “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” with Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111. Two encores capped it all off: No. 13 of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and the Intermezzo in A major from “Klavierstücke,” Op.118 of Johannes Brahms. Dixon said later that Denk was still humming the Brahms backstage after the concert.

That is worthy of note because, unlike with many pianists, there is not an observable bright red line between the offstage Jeremy Denk and the onstage one. In other words, one does not feel a hard, self-conscious shifting of gears when he sits down at the keyboard. His performance was both unaffected and profoundly thoughtful, not leaning upon the virtuosity required by these challenging works alone, but emphasizing their most intimate expressions and innermost workings. And he does it with such apparent ease. Denk is a compellingly imaginative musician, seriously joyful, who knows how to let go and play.