Denk’s Ives proves a triumph at Tanglewood; his Bach not so much

August 14, 2014 at 1:39 pm

By David Wright

Jeremy Denk performed music of Charles Ives and J.S. Bach Wednesday night at Tanglewood.

Reliving past glories is a risky business. Pianist Jeremy Denk tried it Wednesday night in a recital of Ives and Bach at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, with dramatically mixed results.

In March 2008, Denk made a fairy-tale Carnegie Hall recital debut, substituting at the last minute for an ailing André Watts and triumphing in a program of two supremely taxing masterpieces: Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1890” and Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.

Denk brought the identical program to Tanglewood Wednesday, triumphing again in the Ives but then disappointing with a facile, superficial reading of the Bach.

Denk led off the evening by speaking from the stage, outlining the sonata’s four movements—quite needlessly, as Jan Swafford’s program notes covered that ground and more, and Denk’s fingers soon proved more eloquent than his words.  And on this occasion, there was no cause for concern that the audience was anything but eager to hear the piece.

From the opening bars of the complex “Emerson” movement, it was clear that the customary craggy, men-to-match-my-mountains interpretation of this music would not be on view this night.  Denk offered no FIbber McGee closet of clattering discord, but rather a sonorous, coloristic texture in which Ives’s dissonances sounded truly emancipated, even sensuous.

Pursuing a vision of Ives as the ultimate Romantic, Denk brought a sense of psychic flow to this seemingly chaotic music, as if he were interpreting some of Schumann’s wilder inspirations.  Yet he also managed to give each instant of the protean score its own vivid character, from nerves-on-edge to lost-in-thought, so that the listener’s interest in this quarter hour of relentlessly dissonant music never flagged.

Ives’s portraits of the transcendentalist thinkers of Concord refer explicitly to music’s prime transcendentalist composer with persistent quotations from Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata and especially the famous first four notes of the Fifth Symphony.  While paying due attention to these, Denk also brought out the sonata’s Romantic roots, in the expressive counterpoint of Chopin and in Liszt’s “transcendental execution” (his fancy term for virtuosity) and striving for orchestral sonorities.  For once, the sonata sounded more like a piano piece than a philosophical exercise.

Even Denk’s considerable waving around on the bench seemed spontaneous and inevitable, like kelp caught in powerful ocean currents.  The pianist seemed oblivious to the score’s technical difficulties, and before long the listener almost was too.

Denk’s rendering of the wild scherzo “Hawthorne” had flow too, its nose-thumbing yawps and sforzandi played “on a line,” as musicians say, meaning that they were not isolated effects, but grew out of the arc of a phrase.  One was reminded of the fluid spurts and explosions of Debussy’s Feux d’artifice, a fireworks show for piano composed around the same time as this sonata.

The dynamic duo of “The Alcotts”—philosopher Bronson and his novelist daughter Louisa May—came to life in Denk’s performance, as the poles of domesticity and the transcendent at first made for some odd combinations (Beethoven’s Fifth as a sentimental parlor song?) but finally joined forces, pealing out the Beethoven motive in a peroration reminiscent of “The Great Gate of Kiev.”

In the sonata as in history, “Thoreau” stood apart from all this, musing amid the mists of Walden Pond in the sonata’s final movement (and briefly playing his flute, in a tender offstage solo by Masha Popova).  Denk brought out the music’s Schumann-like dreaminess and questioning phrases, with occasional surges of energy as a thought took hold in the philosopher’s mind.

These and all the sonata’s sudden contrasts came across not as firecrackers placed under the listener’s seat by a frat boy from Yale, but as volatile emotions and the complex workings of an active mind.  Arresting from start to ultra-pianissimo finish, the performance’s three-quarters of an hour seemed to pass in a small fraction of that.

Returning to the fray after a none-too-long intermission, Denk seemed to want to bring that same quality of Romantic flow to the “Goldberg” Variations, but the result in this case was only a monochromatic, undifferentiated (if digitally dazzling) mass of music that soon tired the ear.  The omission of some repeats—usually to be criticized as distorting the piece’s shape and depriving the audience of the artist’s second thoughts on the music—in this case came as a relief.

Hearing the pianist dance insouciantly through the first few variations, one wondered when he would get to the meat of the matter.  The answer was, never. Even the garment-rending dissonances of the “Passion” variation (No. 25, in G minor) came off as merely a dreamy interlude. The “Goldbergs” do indeed, as Swafford wrote in the program book, take “a far-ranging journey” before returning home to the original aria, but in this performance the journey didn’t get much further than the end of the block.

It must be noted that, following the Bach, the audience bounded to its feet in an ovation, either in recognition of Denk’s marathon-runner stamina and digital prowess or because it heard something this listener missed.

Denk obliged with an encore, Eusebius’s dreamy little waltz from Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, a tip of the hat to the arch-Romantic composer whose spirit had presided, for better or worse, over the whole evening.

The next presentation of the Tanglewood Festival will be a concert performance of Handel’s opera Teseo, with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan, in Ozawa Hall, 7:30 p.m. Thursday.  bso.org; 888-266-1200.

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