Worlds converge and collide in Denk’s thoughtful pairings for Celebrity Series

December 10, 2023 at 12:58 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Jeremy Denk performed a recital Saturday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

The art of programming isn’t usually a part of conservatory curricula. If it were, the lineup for pianist Jeremy Denk’s recital Saturday night at Jordan Hall would be required reading.

On the one hand, Denk’s Celebrity Series appearance offered something trendy: its first half was devoted to music written by women composers over the last, roughly, two hundred years. The second was dedicated to canonic selections by Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann.

That the latter items—Brahms’s Op. 119 Klavierstücke and Schumann’s Fantasie—were tied together by their composers’ relationships with Clara Schumann came as no surprise. But that there was so much subtle textural, gestural, and dramatic overlap between each of the night’s halves did.

In what other context, for instance, would the skittish, flexatone-like figurations in Meredith Monk’s Paris find an echo in the stratospheric flourishes of Brahms Rhapsody? Or the rhythmic profile of Missy Mazzoli’s Heartbreaker seem a not-so-distant relative to the Fantasie’s stormy opening movement?

What’s more, the evening’s first part held together with uncanny thoughtfulness: there was nothing gimmicky either about Denk’s choices or his performances. Rather, there was a sort of poetic logic to the pianist’s pairings of nine female composers and ten of their works.

Clara Schumann’s turbulent Romance and Tania León’s slashing, athletic Ritual churned through similar emotional terrain. Cécile Chaminade’s devastatingly charming La lisonjera and Mazzoli’s unpredictably pulsing effort paired surprisingly well. Monk’s hypnotic score and Amy Beach’s lilting “In Autumn” shared a certain melodic directness, though the radiant purity of Louise Farrenc’s Mélodie and the bristly lines of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Study in Mixed Accents made for strange bedfellows.

Regardless, the most striking combination was between Phyllis Chen’s delicate, spacious SumiTones and Beach’s mesmeric “Dreaming”: here were two composers speaking the same language, albeit with very different accents.

Denk proved a deft, compelling advocate for all of it. His playing was incisive and propulsive when needed (especially in the León and Seeger), but it was his understanding of musical character and exceptional ear for balances that brought this fare fully to life.

Similar results emerged in his readings of the night’s repertoire staples. 

The Brahms, which dates from 1893, is steeped in melancholy and, as Denk put it to the night’s audience, “bushels of nostalgia.” Accordingly, its four movements brood, though they’re not all grim.

At Jordan, the pianist brought out the first Intermezzo’s low notes with astonishing richness and resonance. The second movement’s outer parts snapped urgently while the third danced and the muscular finale built to a blustery apotheosis.

Bold contrasts also marked Denk’s traversal of the Schumann. Written in 1836, the Fantasie channels a host of disparate influences: the composer’s forced separation from his beloved Clara, the formidable influence of Franz Liszt’s pianism, and an effort to raise funds to build a statue honoring Beethoven, among them. Somehow everything coheres into a cogent musical argument.

On Saturday, Denk allowed the vast opening movement to rage tempestuously, but the dynamic range was smartly shaped and structure commensurately well-defined. The same went for his swaggering take on the second-movement march (its blistering coda held no terrors) and the night’s soulful, exquisitely voiced iteration of the finale.

Following the last, Denk could have justifiably called it a night. But he had one more treat to offer: a graceful, stylish encore of Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin. By dint of the pianist’s musicianship, this lovely rag perfectly complemented the Schumann—and, in turn, everything that had come before it.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Groton Hill Music Center.

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