Pianist Jeremy Denk

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By Monica Mendoza

BEING A MUSICIAN, it isn’t enough to just play your pieces well. Technical prowess is important, but to give a truly great performance a lot of thought must go into the effort as well. Pianist Jeremy Denk displayed many great strengths, technical precision being one of them, but it was his thoughtful repertoire choices as well as his interpretations that gave the biggest impression during his solo recital on Sunday in Carmel.

Denk’s program revolved around the theme of recurring fragments of emotion and thought, as he himself explained after he performed the opening piece of his program. Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor captures a feeling of recurring grief, or regret. The term “Rondo” often describes a jubilant piece with a catchy repeating theme, though here the mood was persistently dark.

Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives fit cleanly into Denk’s program, the idea of the piece directly reflecting his concept for the concert. It’s a collection of 20 short pieces, each with a distinctive emotional quality. Many of the movements are deliberately ambiguous, like an emotion that you can’t quite put your finger on.

The climax to the first half of the program was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 30 in E Major. Especially in the first movement the idea of fragments is prevalent, with the tempo changing from vivace to adagio within the first 30 seconds. However, the third movement finds peace within itself, and finally Beethoven has found a theme to hang on to.

Denk spoke at length about his choices, which I found very valuable. Even though there was plenty of information in the program book, I always like to hear what the performers are thinking when they play, and it certainly made it a more enjoyable performance thanks to Denk’s comments, especially how much interpretation mattered to him. Many pianists simply pound out an impressive performance and call it a day, so it’s special when a performer thinks carefully about the why. He also put a great deal of body language into his playing, while never being excessive. The various moods of the Prokofiev speak well enough through the music, but the addition of different postures and facial expressions made it really come through, loud and clear.

Schubert’s 45-minute Sonata in B-Flat Major made up the entire second half of the concert. Schubert lived only to the age of thirty=one, and this sonata was written shortly before his death. Denk explained how it contains the reflections of a man who knew he was living on borrowed time. Indeed, the sonata is a work full of compositional maturity, and contains fragments different in moods and ideas tying into the general theme. One of the most striking things about the piece is that at the beginning there is a dark, low pitched trill in the bass that seems to come out of nowhere. The bright opening theme of the first movement is always paired with this trill, like a thought that one can’t escape from. Denk himself noted that there are dozens of interpretations for what Schubert is trying to say, and I think it is up to the individual listener or performer to decide.

Denk’s performance of the Schubert was met with enthusiastic applause, and two encores. The first was a graceful rendition of the second movement of Mozart’s “simple” Piano Sonata in C Major, K545. The second was a ‘blasphemous’ (as he put it) version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture, which began solemnly, but quickly took on a sardonic character and became a lightning-fast dance with a jazzy edge. It just goes to show, there is room for all spectrums of emotion in music, including biting humor.

Carmel Music Society’s season draws to a close on June 9th with the piano competition. I, for one, eagerly await their next season of music.