Jeremy Denk’s Labyrinthine Lyricism

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The New York Sun

Michael Tilson Thomas has made the perspicacious argument that the history of Western music would have looked very different if Alban Berg had not died at a young age. On Wednesday at the late-night recital of the Mostly Mozart Festival at the Kaplan Penthouse, the pianist Jeremy Denk offered music of the man whose untimely demise left the biggest hole in the progression of the art form.

No, it’s not Mozart. Of course, Wolfgang died young and, had he lived, would have undoubtedly given to the world more of the greatest music ever composed. But Mozart was really not much of an innovator; rather, he refined standard theorems to their ultimate apogees. The composer who would have had the most profound influence expired at the ridiculously young age of 31. His name was Franz Schubert.

Mr. Denk chose one of the three posthumous sonatas of Schubert, the one in B flat Major, D. 960, the last in numerical sequence. Technically, he did a fine job, but, much more significantly, he was adept at the poetics of the piece.

Schubert creates the illusion of the death of linear time. In a good performance like this one, the listener should feel hopelessly but deliciously lost. Mr. Denk, of course, has to keep his bearings. The trick is to appear to be caught in the labyrinth as well.

The opening Molto moderato is almost as long as the other three movements combined, or so it seems. Mr. Denk offered the movement very clearly, employing dynamic contrast and the slightest of rubato to propel us forward. Emphasizing the architecture of the music, he arrived at his conclusion powerfully. The stage was set for Schubert’s prestidigitation of the temporal.

Except that all of Mr. Denk’s months of preparation and assiduity were negated by the boorish decision of Lincoln Center management to allow the seating of latecomers at the movement’s conclusion. The mood was broken and Mr. Denk needed quite a bit of time to silently prepare himself before continuing.

Soldiering on, Mr. Denk was superb in the Andante sostenuto. He wove a profound, slow movement whose cerebral quality was underscored by a palpable contrast of clean and murky. Judicious use of the pedal aided in this subtle process of definition and demarcation.

A delightful Scherzo followed, Mr. Denk lovingly intoning those unique Schubertian phrases with what in poetry we might call their feminine endings, surprising little twists and turns that are the essence of this composer’s vocabulary. Music would not experience these elegant but oddly self-effacing devices again until the Symphony No. 4 of Gustav Mahler.

After so much excellent playing, the final Allegro ma non troppo-Presto was a bit of a disappointment. Here Mr. Denk was somewhat fuzzy in tone and pounded away at his piano like he meant to punish it. His obvious enthusiasm for this exciting music overflowed its banks for a moment, but overall this was a solid, important performance.

Mr. Denk is a thoughtful musician, a talented turner of written phrases as well as musical ones. In his Web log recently, he stated that “Schubert’s tunes are made to reflect upon themselves, doubtfully.” This sentence captures flawlessly the special mystery of this special composer. I wish that I had written it.

The New York Sun

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