Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Jeremy Denk channels the wanderer Ives and the wonder of Bach

Jeremy Denk, Ojai Music Festival -------------------------- Photo: Robert Millard

Saturday, June 13, 11:00 am, Libbey Bowl,

Ojai, California

IVES: Piano Sonata No. 1

J.S. BACH: Goldberg Variations

Jeremy Denk, piano

Review by Rodney Punt

What a difference a day made at Ojai. The program stumble Friday night would quickly slide from memory with world class music-making the next day. Jeremy Denk’s Saturday morning piano recital paired Charles Ives’ rarely heard first piano sonata with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, an unusual program choice that ended up making a lot of sense. Later that evening came eighth blackbird’s theatrical production of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, with Lucy Shelton as narrator. (We review Denk’s recital here and the Pierrot in the next posting.)

Some works are effortlessly famous from birth; others seem destined to be born orphans. In the earlier category, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which premiered in 1801, was so popular during his lifetime it irritated the composer, even without the catchy title added after his death. Exactly 100 year later, Charles Ives began his Piano Sonata No. 1, but it took 18 years to complete and more than half a century to be published. It’s quite a story.

Ives composed the five-movement parts between 1901-10 and assembled them 1915-19. The completed work was promptly lost and has never been found. Three decades passed before composer Lou Harrison rescued its early sketches from the dust heap in 1948. He and pianist William Masselos painstakingly deciphered and reconstructed the sonata, obtaining the ailing composer’s approval for publication just before he died in 1954.

But that was just the first hurdle. The work’s huge technical challenges prevented most pianists from attempting it, and its thorny textures have kept audiences at bay. But slowly, over the last five decades, its rightful place as a major Ives work is reaching the public ear, nearly a century after the work’s composition.

Was it worth the effort? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, “You betcha.” (We’ll return to her later.)

If the Concord Sonata - Ives’ second work in the genre - is a kind of supreme reflection on the composer’s New England heritage, the first piano sonata is much closer to his actual experiences in the region where he was reared. The work’s five movements chart a loose narrative, in Ives’ words: “the family together in the first and last movements, the boy away sowing his oats in the ragtimes, and the parental anxiety in the middle movement.” It's a rite of passage of a wandering boy to his adulthood, where capers of all sorts abound, replete with Ives’ topical quotations of popular songs and hymns. The last movement’s return to home finds the boy more self-reliant and confident. He is also more reflective, striving now for transcendental connection to the great why of human experience. The perennial unanswered question ends the piece with an enigmatic three note motif: c-b-f#. Can anyone answer this unanswered question?

Yes, in the serene certainty of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The work is a mature systemization of the earthy but pious Bach’s lifelong assimilation of styles and techniques. It leaves no doubt that God is in his heaven with Bach channeling his supreme order on the keyboard. As in the Ives’ sonata, the high and low of life’s experiences share time together, but in the Bach it is within confident rules of a divinely ordained order. Fugues, dances, arias, overtures, cannons - all mix but also match. It’s an encyclopedic work where the art and science of baroque music find a perfect marriage.

We have pianist Jeremy Denk to thank for bringing these two composers together. The Ives piano sonata is full of jagged edges and nervous, irregular phrases; Bach’s Goldberg Variations is self-possessed with a jewel-like precision. The fearless pianist, in the prime of a young career, conjured this audacious recital of seeming opposites. But could he bring it off?

As recently as May 23 – just three weeks from his performance at Ojai - Denk enters on his blog, think denk (sub-titled: the glorious life and thoughts of a concert pianist): “I need to finish memorizing that monster of a piece (the Charles Ives Piano Sonata 1) before I go off to the delightful Ojai Festival.”

The blog’s title tells you already Denk has a playful side (Denk means “think” in German). Once you have browsed a few entries, you get the picture that he is 1) a whimsical romantic flirt, 2) finely attuned to expressiveness - his take on Sarah Palin’s speech patterns is already a classic, 3) self-aware, self-deprecating, and spot-on as an ironic humorist, and 4) something of a sleuth in esoteric musical matters.

He’s also a damn good pianist, with a near flawless technique that can articulate musical phrases that he also knows how to shape into meaningful paragraphs. He can thunder, as he did in the Ives sonata, but he's not heavy-handed; his is a light touch and fleet on its fingers. His most remarkable performance moments are often in the quiet, reflective passages in both the Ives and Bach, where his natural empathy penetrates the composers' intentions. His sense of mimicry (just as with Sarah Palin) can nail the alternatingly rough and tender New England humor of Ives.

Denk also has an acute insight into the subtle dignity of Bach. Baroque manuscripts contain few dynamic markings or tempo indications. They stare at the performer unadorned with expressive direction. Denk’s instincts add flesh and heart to Bach’s sturdy bones, and considerable character to the material in the variations. In this performance he also moved the musical argument along smartly by taking few repeats, but those he did, as in Variation 13, were exquisite.

As a Bach interpreter, one might be tempted to pigeon-hole Denk as having more affinity to the romantic than the clinical, but any such label would be misleading. His performance was satisfying and memorable, and as "authentic", whatever that may mean today, as any I have encountered on modern piano.

Jeremy has at least as much Herz as Denk, and thank goodness for that.

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