In an age when the concert recital feels a bit like a quaint relic of the past, how can musicians grab our attention? Some opt for marathon performances, such as Paul Jacobs' 18 hour survey of Bach's complete organ music, or Konstantin Lifschitz's 2007 performance of both books of The Well Tempered Clavier (7 hours, including a 2 hour dinner break.) Others, such as pianist Pierre Laurent-Aimard, juxtapose classical works with modern ones. (Haydn and Stockhausen, anyone?) Still, no matter how well-meaning the performers, such performances can come off as little more than mere stunts.
Earlier this year, the thoughtful and prodigiously talented pianist Jeremy Denk was inspired to assemble a new recital program, "From Medieval to Modern," in which he attempts to survey the entire canon of western music in a single evening. Speaking from the stage Wednesday night at Alice Tully Hall, where he closed out the seventh edition of the White Light Festival, Denk emphasized that his intention wasn't to deliver a lecture, but to tell a story - albeit one with unexpected resonance caused by recent current events.
"I didn't realize how sobering a recital about history would be at this very moment," he said, to strained laughter.
Denk's program, which lasted about 80 minutes, was as peculiar for what it included (transcriptions of medieval works by Guillaume Du Fay, Jean de Ockeghem, et.al.) as for what it didn't (Schubert, Ravel, Rachmaninoff). But, it did largely succeed at it's central goal of depicting the full arc of musical composition over the past 700 years, in ways that were both affirming and revelatory. It was unlike anything I've ever experienced.