Classical Thursdays Presents Pianist Francesca Khalifa
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey at the Café Caryle

White Light Festival: Jeremy Denk at Alice Tully Hall


White Light Festival Jeremy Denk-001In 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, 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.

White Light Festival Jeremy Denk-002Denk began at the beginning with works by medieval masters such as Guillaume de Machaut, Gilles Binchois, and Josquin des Prez: all beautiful and resonant, but their polyphonic texture was lost hearing them on piano, rather than with two, three or four voices. It would be another century before the first works were written specifically for keyboard, here represented by a sprightly "voluntarie" from William Byrd's "My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal Music" (1591). A pair of Renaissance madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo and Claudio Monteverdi represented the outmost possibilities of harmony and chromaticism.

Another 100 year leap brought us to the Baroque and the showy Sonata in B-flat major, K. 545 (1731) by Domenico Scarlatti, who seemed mostly concerned with trying to pack in as many notes into three minutes as possible. Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor (1723) landed like a thunderbolt, offering a depth of understanding and wisdom that has yet to be equalled.

The golden age of Classical music was represented by - who else? - Mozart, whose Sonata No. 5 began simply but soon revealed complex emotional depths. A audible gasp rose from the audience when the LED sign above the stage flashed the name "Beethoven," though Denk's selection - the Allegro molto from the Sonata No. 5 (1795) - only gave the slightest hint of Beethoven's later, visionary achievements in the genre. 

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Romanticism followed, with violent, moody scores by Schumann, Chopin and Brahms. But, the real showstopper was Liszt's transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (1867), capturing all of the potency and drama of Wagner's orchestral score while somehow adding an element of intimacy that was both transfixing and utterly devastating. The entire room seemed to hold it's collective breath as Denk played with immense passion and heartsleeve emotion.

It seemed impossible to go on, but Denk still had the entire 20th century to go, which began with Schoenberg's aggressively atonal Klavierstücke (1909), which was all the more shocking given that it was written only 16 years after Brahms' Intermezzo. Tonality returned - if blurred - in Debussy's shimmering "Reflets dans l'eau" from Images, full of cascading arpeggios like water falling on rocks. Jazz - or at least a distorted version of it - made an appearance with Stravinsky's Piano-Rag-Music (1919). Serialism reared its fearful head in Stockhausen's Klavierstücke I (1952), followed by the triumphant minimalism of Philip Glass' Etude No. 2 (1994). As if to stake out some sort of middle ground, Denk followed it up with Ligeti's Automne à Varsovie (1985), tempering melody and harmony with a sort of manic anxiety.

Denk concluded by replaying Gilles Binchois' 15th century lament Tristre plaisir et douleureuse joie, which immediately brought to mind Bach's Goldberg Variations, which also end with a recap of the opening theme. Denk's da capo had the duel effect of bringing us down gently from our emotional high and reminding us of the vast musical territory we'd just traversed. As Denk took his well-deserved curtain calls, it was impossible not to be awed by the magnitude of his achievement: all of this music played nearly continuously, mostly from memory, all with precisely the same degree of emotional investment. It was an experience I won't soon forget. 

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