Pianist Jeremy Denk was in top form Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 41st International Festival of Chamber Music.
He exuded an air of great confidence and displayed sure fingers, a fresh and vigorous energy, and a passionate intensity throughout his very difficult program. He also inaugurated the new Steinway grand, upon which he got a big, bold and brash sound. Prior to playing, Denk provided humorous and informative comments to the near-capacity crowd.
He began with Liszt’s 1867 transcription of “Isolde’s Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” one of 11 transcriptions Liszt did of Wagner’s operas. Denk said it was a “naughty choice” to begin a program with one of the most famous final scenes in opera. Liszt was faithful to the score and used a lot of tremolos, but Denk kept a steady pace, even tone, and built carefully to the famous climax.
It took Schumann three weeks to write “Davidsbündlertänze” in 1837 during his engagement to Clara. The 18 short dances are neglected masterpieces, Denk said, and reflect all of Schumann’s jerky, manic and inspired lyricism. They were all different, yet Denk wonderfully caught each dance’s spirit and intent. Phrases were well shaped and often stretched romantically, melodies were sung eloquently, and his technical clarity was exceptional. Schumann was clearly wooing his Clara through his music and Denk projected it lusciously.
Liszt showed that he knew how to repent in his “Après une lecture du Dante” of 1839, Denk said. Having worked his way through numerous princesses across Europe only to end up at the Vatican, Liszt produced this fantasia about the torments of hell with visions of paradise.
Weighted chords, octave runs, and turmoil evolve to pristine melodies that reach ever higher only to have the demons’ lure return. Denk was focused, intense, and brilliant in bravura playing that never overwhelmed.
His stamina was impressive and he had plenty left for Beethoven’s final Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 (1822). After much agitated drama in which Denk showed agile technique, strong forward momentum and much attention to dynamic details, he was quietly elegant in the second movement’s many variations and experiments. It rolled right along quite marvelously.
A standing ovation brought Brahms’ autumnly Intermezzo, Op. 118.
The next concert is Feb. 8 with pianist Vladimir Feltsman.