Dunbar Parish Church
It is, as the Lammermuir Festival’s James Waters pointed out, unusual to see a musician selling their books rather than their recordings at performances. As a hardback is less concealable than a CD, it was also obvious how many were bought, but then Jeremy Denk’s Every Good Boy Does Fine is well worth the read – and “a love story in music lessons” that is tailor-made for his faithful following at the Lammermuir Festival.
By dint of being the star visitor of the event’s return to live operations last year, Denk has swiftly become Lammermuir’s golden boy, and this was the first of five appearances (including a non-playing book-plugging one) in the 2022 programme, two as an orchestral soloist (Brahms on Saturday with the RSNO, Beethoven a week on Monday with the Royal Northern Sinfonia) and one with violinist Maria Wloszczowska, playing Bach.
For the book-buying fans, his opening solo recital was the most personal and idiosyncratic. As he probably says everywhere, his promise to write programme notes had again come to naught (although Lammermuir programme editor David Lee provided another view of the works) so he chose to deliver his thoughts verbally, which is part of the attraction of his appearances. These are a mixture of historical context and musical illumination, and always worth hearing, but his personable delivery and wit are as important – Denk makes his listeners want to open their ears before he plays a note.
He’s some player though, which is the important thing. Opening with Mozart’s A Minor Sonata, K310, here was a reading of the rollercoaster of the composer’s emotions, the register of mood and pitch in constant flux. Perhaps there are pianists with more delicate Mozart, but few with Denk’s passion and commitment – or speed at some points.
The technically-challenging is meat and drink to him, as the full-on pianism of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, which followed, demonstrated. It’s a huge piece, but not short on humour when the gloomy tolling of Le Gibet is followed by the mischief of the gremlin Scarbo. Denk has a habit of turning to the audience at such moments, the expression of the music written on his face, and sometimes almost with an open-eyed look of surprise that the audience is still there.
The pianist spoke less after the interval, but his choice of programme said more. Concluding with Beethoven’s big Opus 109 Sonata, which references the Baroque keyboard style of Bach in the last movement, it began with a Toccata by the earlier composer, played on the Steinway in an expressive style that Bach could surely never have imagined. Between those two sat the recent American Pianist’s Association competition piece Heartbreaker, by Breaking the Waves composer Missy Mazzoli, and the fiendish Ligeti Etude, The Devil’s Staircase, both demonstrations of the capabilities of a modern grand – in the right hands.
It was show-off stuff, but delivered with something approaching no-sweat New York nonchalance. The bulk of the music was played from memory, but Waters found himself called upon to turn the electronic pages of Denk’s tablet computer for the dense modern works. Plaudits to him for being just as relaxed.