An idiosyncratic 600 years of music in 80 minutes from Jeremy Denk
There’s a classic Zippy the Pinhead cartoon, where Zippy and his pal Griffy pass through the Pacific Car Wash—with the top down, of course. At the end of the process, Zippy says life is a lot like a car wash, “You begin with a lot of hope and optimism, when suddenly there’s a bunch of grinding and confusion. In the end you’re not quite sure what happened, but the buffing was pleasant!”
So went Jeremy Denk’s “Medieval to Modern” recital Wednesday night in Alice Tully Hall. Part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, Denk played music, chronologically, from Machaut through Ligeti, with a Binchois piece repeated as a coda at the end. What the pianist was trying to demonstrate with this unbroken 80-minute sequence was confused, not only to the listener but to himself, though a lot of the playing was fabulous.
Speaking briefly from the stage before sitting at the piano, Denk said this “lecture”—his term—was about pitch and harmony, about the movement from modes to tonality to atonality and back again. But his program notes concluded with the statement that “The aim of this recital is to hear the centuries of music in a single arc … Styles die … It is no longer possible to write in the style of Mozart, so this recital is a story of constantly emerging possibility…”
In truth, it was neither, because the music he played could not possibly make either of those two arguments. Call it 600 Years in Search of an Idea.
To begin Denk played arrangements of secular and liturgical vocal music from Machaut, Binchois, Ockeghem, Du Fay, and Josquin. Those composers created some of the greatest music of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, but their work does not translate well to the modern piano. The equal temperament of the instrument takes away most of the beauty and utility of the original modal harmonies. Denk’s natural fire and power was also too heavy for the pieces, though he played the subtle rhythms of Machaut and Binchois with impressive logic and clarity.
Things changed drastically with “A Voluntarie” from William Byrd’s My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal Music, the first keyboard work in the concert. All of a sudden, Denk was playing piano music, and the sparks started to fly.
Keyboard polyphony is a different matter of intervals and rhythms coming together in a complex whole. The music, under the pianist’s hands, made for an often thrilling exploration of the developments of compositional form and of the possibilities of pianism through the centuries.
After an interlude of transcriptions of madrigals by Gesualdo and Monteverdi, Denk took flight with Scarlatti’s Sonata in B-flat, K. 545.
He played it at a tempo just this side of ridiculous, then followed with an equally fleet and fluid performance of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903. Denk played the fugue with an extraordinary intensity, using each successive layer of structural logic to produce a roiling mass of raw emotions. This was a unique moment in one’s experience of listening to Bach.
That was set into glorious relief by the Andante from Mozart’s Sonata K. 545. The shining clarity of Mozart’s impeccable sonata-allegro form, and Denk’s lyrical playing, were like petrichor on a summer morning.
Following were Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt, stretching form and pianism to a breaking point. “In der Nacht” from Fantasiestücke was yearning and aggressive, and the first two Op. 28 Preludes from Chopin roiled the waters again. The pianist’s delicate touch returned with Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde.
The segue from that work to Brahms’s Intermezzo Op. 19, No. 1, was a non sequitur. In this context, Schoenberg’s “Müßige Viertel,” Op. 11, No. 1 made sense as an important next step in harmony and form, and sounded unusually refreshing. It was also the prelude to the greatest flaw in the program, the 20th century.
The last century does pose unique curatorial problems—how does one tell the story of an era where myriad styles and concepts proliferated? Denk choose “Reflets dans l’eau” by Debussy, Stravinsky’s Piano-Rag-Music, Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke No. 1 (in a frightfully impressive rendition), Philip Glass’s Etude No. 2, and “Autumn à Varsovie”, from Ligeti’s Etudes, Book 1. While that is variety, it misses out on many important ideas about how to write for and play the piano; what about Cowell, Cage, Bartók, Lachenmann, Scriabin, Robert Helps, an Art Tatum transcription?
After Denk’s fiery Ligeti, the return of Binchois’ Tristre plaisir et douloureuse joie was a calming exhalation. It had no logical purpose, so couldn’t follow through with the themes and connections that came out of the music. But with such thrilling playing, the buffing was phenomenal.