Lammermuir: Jeremy Denk
Dunbar Parish Church
Having long been a fan of New York-based pianist Jeremy Denk’s thoughtful recordings for the Nonesuch label, and learning only recently that I had missed three chances over the past decade to see him perform a mere 30 miles from my home, his arrival as artist-in-residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival is a particular delight.
It turns out that Denk, who is becoming as noted a wordsmith as he is a musician, is a wonderfully characterful performer. His opening concert, of Book One of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, may technically have been his first public performance of the work from memory, but his opening remarks made clear that these are pieces he has known since childhood. The parallel he drew between his own stern father over-seeing his keyboard practice and Papa Bach’s position as the architect of Western music may have been personal, but it perfectly set up his playing of what are some of the best-known opening bars of music in the canon. For those whose first re-acquaintance with live music this was, they could not fail to be especially moving.
Playing this music is also a perfect match for the memoir of music lessons and teachers that Denk has been working on. Even listeners much less musically-literate than him can hear in Bach’s progression through the notated keys, and in playing that progressed from intimate to expansive over the course of the evening, the building blocks of composition. For the young pianist the Preludes and Fugues develop mental agility as much as manual dexterity as themes swap between the hands, or span both. It is like listening to Lego in the hands of a master-builder.
And if that suggests a certain playfulness in Denk’s approach, that is exactly correct. He found intimations of the cartoon music of Raymond Scott and Carl Stalling at points, as well as reminders that pianists from Jacques Loussier to Brad Mehldau have found jazz inspiration in Bach’s works.
More than that, and although he is far from being a flamboyant performer, Denk is apt to cast a knowing glance at the audience to be sure we are not missing a little musical joke, and his facial expressions are often in limpid contrast to the frenetic fingering going on. Technically brilliant, his playing is never “clinical”, as the sports-reporting cliché would have it, with an occasional buzzing string or foot stomp all part of the evening.
Having waited a while to see him live, the other pianist Denk occasionally brought to mind was the late Dudley Moore, who may be better known for his comedy and films, but was a damned fine jazz piano-player. In a very similar way, Denk is clearly entirely in his element at the keyboard.