Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Composer Jeff Winslow reflects on the Jeremy Denk concert

I talked with Jeff Winslow after the Jeremy Denk concert (July 18) at the Portland Piano International Summer Festival, and he volunteered a review. So here is his take on Denk's recital:

Extreme ambivalence - that was my mood as Jeremy Denk's Saturday evening performance at the Portland Piano Festival approached. On the one hand, I was sorely disappointed at the program change. The original program was a near ideal melding of classic, romantic, and contemporary works, crammed with personal favorites from each period. The replacement program was restricted to a work I'd never heard - Ives's first piano sonata - and that magnificent warhorse, the Goldberg Variations. Yet I was sure, from his performance of Ives's Concord Sonata two years ago at the Festival, that the Ives would be brilliant, even definitive, and surely such a capable pianist would have something new to say about the Goldbergs.

I'm happy to report that my disappointment ended for good with the first few notes Mr. Denk struck in the Ives sonata. As in his Concord Sonata performance, he astonished with a barely imaginable combination of athleticism, passion, and over all, clarity. Presumably, like the Concord, this sonata has no pedal indications. In such a complex and many-layered work, this places the pianist almost in the role of compositional partner, and Denk once again handled that role with absolute assurance and great success. The audience seemed to agree - despite the often thorny language of the piece - they responded with an appreciative roar after the last notes had died away.

The Goldberg Variations kept the fire burning brightly through the second half. An outstanding feature of the performance was the often dramatic tempo contrast between succeeding variations, and the way in which Mr. Denk chose to repeat one or both halves of each variation individually to propel that drama. The fastest variations (and some, without losing any clarity, were spectacularly fast) rarely included repetition, but the slowest ones generally had both halves repeated. In others, only the first half was repeated. Despite this unconventional procedure, I found myself convinced by all his decisions, with the exception of the final variation, the quodlibet, in which the density of the thematic material cries out for repetition. I was especially pleased that the lovely if unfortunately numbered 13th variation was lovingly repeated in its entirety, as indeed it fully deserves. If any of this structuring was resented by the audience, one could hardly tell, since again, after respectfully allowing the last sounds to die away, they enthusiastically acclaimed the pianist. I enthusiastically joined them.

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