Monday, March 28, 2011

Jeremy Denk - Ives & Bach - 03/27/11

Ives: Piano Sonata No 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-60” - Tara Helen O'Connor - Flute
Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

After weeks of mounting excitement, it is always disappointing to some degree when the artist one had looked forward to hearing cannot make it, never mind that the reasons for not showing up are totally legitimate. But I must say that lately I have had a very hard time feeling sorry for myself even after Maurizio Pollini stood me up not once, by twice in less than two weeks. After all, life could be much worse than having Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk (separately, in this case) fill in after the ailing Italian pianist cancelled his American tour, that’s for sure.
So it was in decidedly high spirits that I walked down Broadway and then Central Park South all the way to the mythical corner of E. 57th Street and 7th Avenue for my second Carnegie Hall concert of the weekend. I was all the more secure about the matinee performance I was about to attend knowing that local pianist extraordinaire Jeremy Denk would be there too, not only substituting at the very last minute without batting an eyelash, but also finally getting his first solo recital in the prestigious Isaac Stern auditorium - the place that makes you or breaks you - by the same token. It was about time.

Although it is probably safe to assume that most of the audience was there for the beloved Goldberg Variations, the concert kicked off in a much more challenging fashion with the ”Concord” Sonata by American composer Charles Ives. Inspired by the Transcendentalism society of 19th century New England (each movement is named after one of its writers), Beethoven’s Symphony No 5, Protestant hymns and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, among other things, the score is intrinsically complex with unpredictable moods and fast-changing rhythms striving for balance. Jeremy Denk, however, made sure to keep it accessible and engaging for all without compromising the work’s integrity. As an extra bonus, the appearance of the flute, which is often overlooked in live performances, at the end of the fourth movement added a lovely touch of lightness and simplicity.
After this excursion into experimental music, we were on to a different kind of experiment, one that has belonged to music history for literally centuries now, in Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations. Although the composition is a marvel of technical wizardry, no knowledge of music theory is necessary to fully enjoy its intricate nature and irresistible appeal. All one needs is a genial, virtuosic pianist, just like the one we had before us yesterday. Keeping his playing clear, graceful and spontaneous, Jeremy Denk managed the daunting marathon in just under an hour without even breaking a sweat. (Actually, this was not hard considering the sub-polar temperature in the hall.) Under his care, each variation got to show its own personality and strut its little, personable stuff before the next one took over, eventually coming full circle to the dreamy opening aria.

After much loud begging, we got our encore in a repeat of  "The Alcotts" movement from the "Concord" sonata, the one in which the famous first notes of Beethoven's fifth symphony are in most obvious display. One last treat to take home from a richly fulfilling afternoon.

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