Denk shows insight and aplomb in reshuffled Rockport program

July 1, 2016 at 11:53 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Jeremy Denk performed a recital Thursday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: MIchael Wilson

Jeremy Denk performed a recital Thursday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Michael Wilson

 Jeremy Denk is undoubtedly one of the most thoughtful pianists on the scene today. His recital programs often feature interesting, even jarring combinations of repertoire, such as Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Ligeti’s Études. In Denk’s Celebrity Series recital this past April, he performed music ranging from the Renaissance to modern-era ragtime composers, zoning in the syncopated rhythms that lie at the beating heart of each piece.

That said, his recital as part of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival Thursday night at the Shalin Liu Performance Center was more traditional, a departure from the originally planned program of twenty-five short pieces that ran the gamut from Machaut and Binchois to Ligeti, Adams, and the Beatles. It’s a pity that the audience didn’t get the chance to hear what promised to be an enriching program (though he’s scheduled to perform it at Tanglewood in August). Still, Thursday’s recital of works by Mozart and Schubert proved rich in musical rewards.

Denk is a thinking musician’s pianist. He commands a slick technique at the keyboard and a penetrating mind poised on shaping musical phrases into statements of plush, romantically tinged expression.  

In his hands, the two Mozart Sonatas on the program, No. 8 in A minor, K. 310, and No. 15 in F major, K. 533, were vehicles for both introspection and exuberance. His playing of these works gleamed with silky touch and long, arching phrases.  

The introspection was most apparent in the slow movements. With feathery tone, Denk beautifully crafted the phrases in the F major’s Andante, taking care to mine the mystery from the searching harmonies that pervade the movement. In the second movement of the A minor sonata, he found a tender lyricism as his lines took on a vocal arc and rhythmic freedom.

Denk’s playing of the outer movements of both sonatas was colorfully shaded, and he handled the furious runs that pepper these works with aplomb. Dialogue between the left and right hands was clear and had a richness of musical conversation.

After intermission, Denk diverted from the printed program, offering a suite of three short pieces in lieu of Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata. William Byrd’s Ninth Pavane was vigorous as Denk deftly handled the music’s competing musical lines. Bach’s Sarabande from the E minor English Suite seemed to turn about in place, sounding with cool but radiant tone. Mozart’s Gigue in G major, K. 574 put a playful close on a selection of pieces that explored what is meant by musical style.

The final work in the program, Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, rides the rail between theme and variations and a piano sonata. Denk gave a thoroughly dramatic performance. His handling of the theme ranged from bell-toned statements to phrases of song-like grace. The second movement was especially gorgeous in Denk’s expansive phrasing. He took the third movement at a breakneck pace, the movement’s dancing figures almost sounding in a blur as a result. That was counterbalanced in the finale, where Denk rendered the fugal statements with crystalline articulation as he build the music to a satisfying conclusion.

Warm applause brought Denk back for a single encore, a tenderly lyrical rendition of the thirteenth variation from the Goldberg Variations. 

The next program of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival will feature pianist Aldo López-Galiván and the Harlem Quartet in music by Valdés, “Dizzy” Gillespie, Jobim, Strayhorn, and López-Galiván 8 p.m. Friday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. rockportmusic.org; 978-546-7391

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