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Pianist Denk delights crowd with trip through centuries

Pianist Denk delights crowd with trip through centuries

Performer lets crowd 'hear all the centuries of music in a single arc'
Pianist Denk delights crowd with trip through centuries
Pianist Jeremy Denk.

SCHENECTADY — Pianist Jeremy Denk is as much a scholar as he is a terrific performer. On Sunday afternoon in the final concert of the Union College Concert Series at Memorial Chapel, he told a near-capacity crowd that his recital’s aim was “to hear all the centuries of music in a single arc.” 

That meant starting with the 14th century’s Guillaume de Machaut and ending with Gyorgy Ligeti, who just died in 2006, a span that was covered in 24 pieces.

Many were composed by familiar names like Mozart, Purcell, Bach or Chopin. Less familiar were by Clement Janequin (circa early 16th century), Gilles Binchois (15th century) or Karlheinz Stockhausen (mid-20th century). The program, which Denk performed last year for the first time at Tanglewood, is as fascinating conceptually as it is a tour de force.

Denk was formidable on all counts. Playing everything from memory, he was passionate, intense, brilliant technically, took chances with the more familiar names yet always found meaning in even the simplest line. He seemed not only in the zone — applause was held until intermission — but his manner was joyous. How wonderful it is to be on top of your technique and be able to play anything.

It was an education for the crowd. As decades passed, one heard a shift from modality to tonality and then left that behind; how lines started simply and then became explosions of chords, arpeggios or scales that covered the keyboard.

Pedal to sustain appeared. Melodies went from simple laments to complex counterpoints to lush romantic swoons to spatial points of color. These intricacies mirrored the instrument’s evolution from a simple keyboard to the modern-day piano.

Most of the pieces were new to the crowd. Beginning with the medieval composers, there were two-line laments (a bass and a treble) by de Machaut and Binchois; more harmony with three lines in Johannes Ockeghem’s “Kyrie”; Guillaume Dufay’s playful “Frac cuer Gentil”; more tonal shifts in Josquin Desprez’s “Kyrie” and Janequin’s “Au Joly Jeu.” Elizabethan-era William Byrd’s “A Voluntarie” was so bold you could hear the trumpets declaring in thirds. 

Renaissance composers discovered major and minor keys. Carlo Gesualdo and then Claudio Monteverdi exalted in stretching their imaginations, but Henry Purcell explored more simply in “Ground in C minor.” Domenico Scarlatti’s newly conceived sonata form set the stage but J.S. Bach stuck with his inventive genius to create marvels of counterpoint, especially in “Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor” that Denk played at lightning speed with amazingly fluid fingerwork.

All that changed with Mozart’s purity of melody and line heard in an underplayed but elegant Andante from Sonata in C Major; then Beethoven’s darkly dramatic first movement from his Sonata in C minor. Schumann took up the romantic mantle in “In der Nacht,” followed by Chopin’s sweep of sound (Prelude No. 1) and lingering lament (Prelude No. 2). Orchestral transcriptions were popular in the 19th century and Liszt caught the magic in the “Libestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” 

Romance, depicting a mood, image, or emotion inspired Brahms’ “Intermezzo No. 1”; Debussy’s “Reflection on the Water”; Stravinsky’s quirky, percussive “Piano-Rag-Music”; Stockhausen’s percussively dissonant “Klavierstucke 1”; Philip Glass’ pretty, subtle Etude No. 2; and Ligeti’s anxious and angry “Autumn in Warsaw.”

The concert closed with the Binchois lament, which seemed more haunting after what had come before and the audience giving a standing ovation, cheers and whistles.

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