JEREMY DENK Piano Recital
International Piano Festival Singapore
Victoria Concert Hall
9 June 2018)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 11 June 2018 with the title "Variations take centrestage".
On the Singapore International Piano Festival's third evening, American pianist Jeremy Denk presented a recital centred on the theme of variations. Although he dropped Brahms' Schumann Variations at the eleventh hour, its replacement, Mozart's Rondo in A minor (K.511) also had the feel of variations taking place.
In his preamble, Denk explained that all the works had a sense of circularity and the idea of returning in common. Thus the sad, desolate theme of the Mozart doing its rounds had an added resonance. Utter clarity and crystalline sonorities characterised this masterpiece of private and intimate tragedy.
Even if the music ventured off at a tangent on some metaphysical journey, it always returned home to a familiar, and almost comfortable, feeling of bleakness. Denk's elegant and perfectly conceived reading did this slowly pulsing and gently throbbing movement full justice.
Classicism transitioned to romanticism for Beethoven's Sonata No.30 in E major (Op.109), a late work that exhibited extremes of dynamics and quasi-improvisational episodes in between. The first two movements contrasted dreamy sentimentality with violent flailings, trenchantly brought out by Denk before settling into the final movement's Theme and Variations.
The serene theme, a lovely chorale in E major, went through myriad transformation - including some almost jazzy asides - before arriving back at that rock of reassuring stability. This schema writ large would return in the second half, in the form of J.S.Bach's Goldberg Variations.
This Magnum Opus of the keyboard repertoire, once considered arcane and nigh unplayable, has never been more popular among audiences than the present. An Aria in G major is subjected to 30 variations, every third one being a canon, in what is the mathematician-musician's dream.
Even the variations are not true variations of the Aria in the usual sense, but built upon the sequence of bass notes on the left hand. Instead of a strait-jacket, this offered an independence of compositional thought which Bach fully exploited. So did Denk, who offered a nuanced and often brilliant performance that had not a dull moment.
His breezy reading clocked in one minute short of an hour. This was achieved by playing the Aria in a goodly pace, no protractedness for its own sake, and judiciously omitting repeats for many variations. Each half of 15 variations were perfectly balanced and poised.
Ornamentations were kept to the minimum, but he relished in the show-boating aspects of faster numbers, flaunting it like a consummate jazzman. Ultimately the respect shown to the slower variations, particularly No.25 in G minor (known as the Black Pearl), sealed the deal, leading back to the luminous Aria without further fuss or fancy.
There was a standing ovation, to which he reciprocated with another gem in G major, the slow movement from Mozart's Sonata Facile in C major (K.545). Closing with an uproarious improvisation on Wagner's Pilgrim's Chorus from Tannhäuser by 1940s stride pianist Donald Lambert, Denk brought down the house.