Tag Archives: Jeremy Denk

Lammermuir Festival: SCO/Denk

St Mary’s, Haddington

Only a couple of years separate Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 and No. 23, but there can be few better illustrations of the development of his composition. As pianist Jeremy Denk put it in his introductory remarks to the closing concert of this year’s Lammermuir Festival, and his residency in East Lothian, the earlier work is one of by “the mad scientist in his laboratory”, while the A Major is the work of the mature talent who was also writing The Magic Flute.

My guess is that Denk and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra devoted more of their rehearsal time to the less-performed work. The E-flat Major was a certainly played by the composer, but it was the first of two written for his talented pupil Barbara von Ployer, “Babette”, the daughter of a Viennese councillor. With just 14 strings and minor roles for pairs of horns and oboes, this performance was historically-informed in its detail and precision-honed in its balance, particularly in the Andantino second movement. With his back to the audience and the lid off the Steinway, around which the players were assembled, Denk was a hands-on director of the music here, which meant that we were denied his charismatic facial expressions, now directed to them, and especially first violin Stephanie Gonley.

This mix of spare ingredients was marginally less successful in the more familiar work where bassoons, clarinets and a flute are added and the reverberant acoustic of the kirk meant things were less distinct. Denk treated his first movement cadenza less as a solo than as piece of plot exposition on the road to the Adagio, where he shared one of Mozart’s best tunes with the clarinet of Maximiliano Martin. By the finale it was clear that this was a piece of larger conception in every department but it lacked some of the finesse of the programme’s opener.

Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No 12 in E Major was a well-chosen partner to the concertos, and Gonley guided her colleagues expertly through a work that was breaking new ground twenty years earlier, in both its key and a central movement with bold rhythms and modulations. The lower strings had more of a voice here, and the SCO’s leader was always in firm control of the dynamics in the space.

Keith Bruce

pictured: Stephanie Gonley

Lammermuir: Jeremy Denk

Dunbar Parish Church

Had Jeremy Denk’s second solo recital as artist-in-residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival consisted solely of Bach’s Partita No 5 in G Major and Beethoven’s remarkable final piano sonata, the Opus 111 in C Minor, few would have complained.

Both works are, in their very different ways, explorations of the nature of time. Denk strode on to the platform and was straight down to business with the Bach, although piano-playing for him is clearly more on the “pleasure” side of the equation – and he is eager to share the joy. His internal metronome is calibrated precisely enough that he can ease the strict tempo as the work unfolds and allow a little elasticity in movements that may be based on dance rhythms but were never intended for dancing.

The Beethoven, on the other hand, was eloquently introduced, its contrasting movements, in the pianist’s phrase, “a vision of one thing, and its antidote”, a remembrance of the past and a picture of the future so bold that there was nothing more the composer could say in this form. Denk gave the work an unforgettable probing performance, constantly moving with the fluid currents of the writing with an obvious reluctance to give in to any obvious “hook” in mere repetition.

However, it was what came between these two masterworks that elevated the concert to classic status. The suite of four pieces that Denk had assembled, in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests around the globe, began with London-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s treatment of the African-American tune They will not lend me a child and culminated in Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues from the late 1970s. It is an astonishing piece of post-minimalist expressionism that uses the full power of a grand piano in its motorik exploration of the dignity of labour as well as its trials.

The Coleridge-Taylor was followed by another remarkable work in “Blind Tom” Wiggins’s The Battle of Manassas, which re-creates, with samples and dialogue, an event in the American Civil War and, while more of a music-hall turn, is only slightly less creative in the use of the instrument, yet was written a full century before.

The cacophony of the battlefield was still dying away when Denk segued into Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin, the latter being a black ragtime composer who has the dubious honour of beating bluesman Robert Johnson to membership of the “27 Club” by 30 years, and Jimi Hendrix by more than another 30.

The earlier works were all effectively a pathway to the Rzewski, whose work is surely now ripe for reappraisal following his death at the end of June this year, at 83. Denk’s timely and thoughtful placing of it here was the ideal start.

Keith Bruce

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.

Keith Bruce

Think Denk

Pianist Jeremy Denk talks words and music with Keith Bruce on the eve of his residency at the Lammermuir Festival.

Pianist Jeremy Denk has just had a negative Covid test and is cleared to fly to Scotland when I connect via Zoom to his New York apartment. He has also survived, unscathed, the storm and flooding that recently hit the city. “I stayed in that night and shut the windows, in a very New Yorker fashion,” he deadpans.

Denk is artist-in-residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival, giving four concerts that cover the range of his musical practice, from solo Bach (The Well-Tempered Clavier) and a more varied solo recital, to chamber music with violinist Maria Wloszczowska and members of the SCO and the festival’s concluding concert with the full orchestra, playing two Mozart concertos.

Like British pianist Stephen Hough, however, Denk’s artistic life also embraces writing, which began as a blog, “Think Denk”, and will soon see the publication of a memoir that expands on a celebrated article about his piano teachers for New Yorker magazine.

That meant he was not idle when the worldwide spread of the coronavirus brought the music industry to a standstill.

“I used it as a work retreat. I had this book that I was supposed to finish, so I used a fair amount of the early pandemic to write and I was lucky to have that outlet, which was all-consuming for a while. 

“I also learned a bunch of newish pieces and I was working on The Well-Tempered Clavier. I did a video version of that earlier this year and it is a piece that is still in that nice honeymoon phase – every day it is different. I played it twice before the pandemic started, both with the music, but this will be the first time I play it from memory.”

The pianist is delighted that his brief for Lammermuir was simply to do things that he enjoys doing. Playing Mozart concertos is one of those, the two that feature in the East Lothian festival coming just days after the release of a different pair on his latest recording for the Nonesuch label.

“Mozart concertos work much better for me when they feel like chamber music and you get to talk to the winds, and sympathise with them, and bring the contact closer.

“One of the problems is often they are sitting way back on the stage, when they are really proxy opera characters, if you think of Mozart himself as at the piano. He often wants to cede the stage to the oboe or the rapscallion bassoon, and when I rehearse with an orchestra I look for the freedom to find that.”

Piano Concerto No 23, which will close Lammermuir at St Mary’s Parish Church in Haddington, has been very much on Denk’s mind. 

“In my book I was writing about that A major K488, which was the first Mozart concerto I learned when I was 12 years old, so it has a Proustian element for me.

“The piece for the New Yorker had lots of gaps and missed out lots of teachers who helped me. I was a clueless kid; I went to college a little young and I had to do a lot of growing up in a very short time. During the pandemic I found I could access those memories more directly than in the past.

“So it goes from my first musical memories with my father and the neighbourhood piano teacher, aged five, through to my New York debut when I was 26.”

What, I wonder, had prompted the urge to commit those memories to publication?

“Piano players spend a lot of time on their own,” he suggests, “so we have a lot of thoughts we have to unburden. I am extremely grateful to my teachers and I often feel regretful that I don’t follow their advice as closely as I should, so it didn’t take any particular prompting.

“And I have always been a looker-backer; even when I was six years old I had a premature nostalgic streak. Books were always my great refuge, along with the piano, so writing is a very natural outlet. Even if I watch more Netflix than I read now, I still wish it wasn’t so!”

Denk writes very eloquently indeed about music, and the new album, recorded with Minnesota’s St Paul Chamber Orchestra, has a fine booklet note, especially on Concerto No 25 in C Major, K503.

“The C Major is one of Mozart’s greatest achievements, it has this weird ecstasy which is unlike any other Mozart piece,” he tells me. “It is a love letter to harmony. Mozart has found two elements of beauty in the world of harmony, the seventh chord and the instability between major and minor, and he explores them in such profusion. I like obsessive pieces and that is an obsessive piece.”

So too, says Denk, is Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Opus 111, also in C major, which will conclude the pianist’s third concert in Dunbar Parish Church, and which was on a Nonesuch release in 2012, bracketed, brilliantly, by Ligeti Piano Etudes.

“It takes a rhythmic principle and adds a weird asymmetry. There is an element of chaos theory there that is also obsessive. Beethoven was obsessed by reinventing rhythm by destroying it. Time refuses to settle, and this continuing reinvention of time was what Beethoven was after in his later years.”

That remarkable work ends a recital that begins with a Bach Partita but takes a more modern turn in the works between.

“That suite of pieces was inspired by racial protests of last summer. Mostly, the other pieces talk to the Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which is a very powerful musical translation of an incidence of American injustice. The Blind Tom Wiggins is an account of a Confederate victory during the Civil War, and is extremely violent, while the others are more lyrical.”

If there is a narrative there, then that is only indicative of how Denk’s mind works, both in considering his own life and the music he performs, as the latest chapter of his career plays out.

“Apart from a few scattered things, I have been doing more teaching than playing this summer, and this will be my first trip overseas. My experience of Scotland is very limited so this time I hope to immerse myself, although I am a very cautious person by nature so I will be keeping my distance! But I am so thrilled to be performing for people again.”

Jeremy Denk appears at Dunbar Parish Church on September 10, 14 and 16, and St Mary’s, Haddington on September 20. lammermuirfestival.co.uk

Mozart Piano Concertos by Jeremy Denk and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra is released by Nonesuch on September 17.