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Jeremy Denk and the Non-Russian Stravinsky

Two days after the conclusion of Valery Gergiev’s three-week New York Philharmonic “Russian Stravinsky” festival (cf. my Stravinsky blogs of March 23, May 3, May 9), I found myself listening to “Non-Russian Stravinsky”: the Concerto for Piano and Winds as rendered by the singular American pianist Jeremy Denk and a terrific orchestra of young musicians – Ensemble ACJW – led by John Adams at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. The differences were startling.
With the Philharmonic Gergiev invested the concerto’s opening Largo with a liturgical gravitas. As the Largo returns to end the piece 20 minutes later, this formidable Slavic frame set the tone. Amazingly, Gergiev engaged all eight of the Philharmonic’s double basses alongside the concerto’s massed winds and brass (Stravinsky does not specify the number of basses to be employed). Ensnared by this thick tonal envelope, the young Russian pianist Alexei Volodin couldn’t hold his own. He is obviously a polished player, with a glossy sound alluringly applicable to Chopin or Rachmaninoff. And it was in his favor that no more than Gergiev did he attempt to perform and interpret with Stravinskyan objectivity. That said, Gergiev needed a weightier, more challenging partner (e.g., Denis Matsuev, who performed the Stravinsky Capriccio with him earlier in the week).
Denk, by comparison, is a pianist impossible to place. I would call him “American” – he capers outside all European traditions of interpretation known to me. That so original an artist – so blithely irreverent and adventurous (his current season repertoire includes Ligeti, Carter, Feldman, Ades, and Ives) should have lately acquired something like a major career (Philadelphia Orchestra, London Philharmonia, etc.) is a mystery. I cannot think of a precedent among American-born solo instrumental soloists. I first encountered him in a program of Bach partitas treated as coloristically as Edwin Fisher and Wilhelm Kempff once purveyed this music – and yet not remotely Germanic in tone. I have since heard him in Tchaikovsky, Ives, and now Stravinsky. It all sounds like Denk to me.
If I were to attempt to put into words what Denk sounds like, the first impression I would wish to convey is the illusion of complete spontaneity – by which I refer not only to darting details of tempo and dynamics, but to a supreme acuity of touch and hearing, of deft inflection of hand and – never to be neglected – foot. Other Denk attributes that leap to mind are subtly aerated keyboard textures and a playfulness of intellect that never careens into eccentricity. A protean artist, he tickles the brain and delights the ear. He also happens to possess 10 spectacular fingers that refuse to brag (I have not heard his Liszt).
In the Stravinsky concerto, Volodin struggled with the leaping marcatissimo octaves of the last measures; the final cadence was deprived of punch. Denk sailed through this passage without a care. Even more remarkable, it seemed to me, was the first movement’s Piu mosso coda, which builds to a crushing downbeat on another of Stravinsky’s reprises of the opening Largo. As the texture thickened, Volodin lost momentum. Denk turned up the heat again and yet again. The return of the Largo was louder and more massive in Gergiev’s Philharmonic performances; but Denk’s build-up insured that Adams’s players entered with more impact.
Denk sang the concerto’s slow movement beautifully, graciously, memorably. In the finale, he dipped in and out of the jazzy syncopations while sipping champagne. I would call his Stravinsky Concerto “Franco-American.”
If ever there were to be an “American Stravinsky” festival, exploring New World changes wrought in our hearing and understanding of music so culturally layered and unmoored, Jeremy Denk would be the obvious candidate to illuminate this opposite side of the Stravinsky coin.

Comments

  1. I hope you might have a chance to hear Sarah Davis Buechner (another remarkable American pianist) play the Concerto sometime – she did it with the Victoria Symphony here a couple of months ago – breathtaking, with power to spare.

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