Denk Cunningly Curates

Jeremy Denk
The Boston Musical Intelligencer

by James C.S. Liu

But as much as Schubert’s final completed composition might seem a stark contrast from the ragtime set, in this performance Denk moved from strength to strength. He played the massive first movement Molto moderato at a brisk pace, but with a stunningly evocative bell-like tone for the opening bars, gorgeous dynamic shaping that allowed you to hear the same teasing interplay between the hands that characterized the Bach Prelude and the Lambert (and you inevitably heard Schubert’s syncopations in the tune and the off-beat accents all the more keenly). Denk skipped the giant exposition repeat of the first movement—perhaps just as well, given the lateness of the evening. Throughout the first movement, he deployed a compelling variation in articulation and inflection to give each section its own distinctive shape and profile. In Denk’s hands, with the main tune always prominent, distinct, and clear, a principal accompaniment part that stayed a little below the tune, and subsidiary material that stayed lower still. Even at the softest of dynamics with tune and accompaniment parts switching between the hands rapidly, Denk managed to preserve this hierarchy of sound, marking the touch of a veteran Lieder pianist.

The second movement Andante sostenuto was gorgeously shaped at very quiet dynamics. The most striking thing here was his ability to judge transitions between sections, so that a new subject seemed to grow organically out of what came before. The movement never lost sight of the singing line, no matter what rumbling bass interjections or stark sonic landscapes lay around it. And Schubert’s miraculous shift from C-sharp minor to C major in the recapitulation was handled with beautifully judged timing. For the Scherzo, he played with delicacy and the same nervous energy that permeated the fast movements of the Bach. The middle section Trio stood out for its syncopations. And the final Allegro ma non troppo moved forward with a steady inevitability, breezily quick, making much of the notes repeating like an idée fixe and the off-beat accents, and exploding into a blistering coda that brought the audience to its feet.

After an ambitious program like this, many pianists would play a rabble-rousing, knuckle-busting show stopper for an encore. But Denk offered a glowingly hushed, beautifully restrained rendition of variation 13 from J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. It was a jewel of a performance, different in its shape and conception from the live performance at the Gardner Museum [here] or the Nonesuch recording that made him an international star. It formed the perfect ending, though, to a marvelous off-beat, upside-down masterpiece of a recital.

Read the full review here.