CONCERT REVIEW | Jeremy Denk, pianist

Jeremy Denk
Arts Birmingham

In pianist Jeremy Denk’s expansive vision, more than 600 years of western classical music can be seen as a single multi-movement work forming an entire recital.

For one of the most respected pianists on the planet, that makes little sense. After all, the instrument he has so excelled at didn’t exist before the time of Bach, or, half of Denk’s “Medieval to Modern” program he presented Sunday at the Alys Stephens Center. The event was part of ASC’s Salon Series, which seats listeners on risers on the back of the stage. The series is designed for intimate listening in a big acoustic space, and it worked beautifully.
Beginning in the 14th century and ending in the late 20th century, the 24 pieces progressed in roughly chronological order. As ancient scribes such as Binchois, Dufay, Josquin and Gesualdo rose from the pages of erudite music history texts, there was an increasing awareness that the Steinway Denk was using to convey the progression to the 18th century was of secondary importance. Rather, this was pure music, whether transcribed from church masses, madrigals or early keyboard instruments.
Machaut’s two-voice ballade, “Doulz amis, oy mon compleint,” segued to Binchois’ “Triste plaisir,” revealing the startling 15th century innovation of composing for three voices. From Ockeghem’s imitative counterpoint through the increasing complexities introduced by Dufay and Jannequin, Denk made certain that listeners were engaged and enlightened by his chosen repertoire. Two early 17th century madrigals stood in striking contrast, Gesualdo’s chromatic excesses profoundly illuminated in the madrigal, “O dolce mio Tesoro,” and immediately sedated by Monteverdi’s easygoing rhythms and melodies in “Zefiro torna e di soavi accenti.”
But the most cogent statement in Denk’s tour came with music composed between 1905 and 1995, the pianist convincingly pointing out, through six composers, that the 20th century’s stylistic mélange was an unprecedented period of creativity. Schoenberg’s stormy, expressionist “Mässige Viertel” and Stockhausen’s jarringly dissonant “Klavierstücke I” served as antitheses to a heavenly reading of Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau” and Glass’ soothing tonality and majestic textures in Etude No. 2.
Few musicians could have pulled off “Medieval to Modern.” Despite endless musical choices, decisions on what to eliminate, how to set a performance pace, and how best to make comprehensible connections, Denk has created a masterpiece of programming. Moreover, he has shown how western classical music arrived intact in the 21st century despite disparities of textures, of consonance and dissonance, and of performance media.
That came full circle in the concert’s final moments. Ligeti’s etude, “Autumn in Warsaw,” with its monstrously difficult chromatic cascades leading to a thundering conclusion, was followed by a reprise of Binchois’ inwardly reflective, almost naïve “Triste plaisir,” composed 4½ centuries earlier. It was the perfect denouement.