Review: Jeremy Denk plays with time, and the program, at the Wallis

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When pianist Jeremy Denk says this is “one of the most conventional programs that I play,” you might be tempted to mentally add the words, “relatively speaking.”

See, Denk made a good deal of his reputation on outlandish challenges — such as programming Ives’ cantankerous Piano Sonata No. 1 as a companion piece to J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations at the 2009 Ojai Music Festival. Or sandwiching Beethoven’s valedictory Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, between two books of Ligeti études on his first Nonesuch solo album. Or not playing at all — writing the hilarious libretto for the late Steven Stucky’s opera, “The Classical Style.”

So yes, Denk’s recital at the Wallis Center for the Performing Arts Wednesday night — which began with Mozart, segued into early Prokofiev and continued with slices of late Beethoven and late Schubert — would seem to be not quite as out there.


There was one program switch: The originally announced Schumann Fantasie in C, Op. 17, was replaced by Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat, D. 960. Another piece from the original program, Beethoven’s pioneering song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte” in a Liszt transcription (the Schumann work quotes from it), was still listed on the program insert, but not a note of it was played.

Thus, most of the online program notes were rendered obsolete, but those who showed up early got an interview with demonstrations at the piano from the reliably witty Denk that more than made up for it. He made time the theme of his program: how Beethoven would break time apart and reassemble it, how Schubert would expand time and drift off-topic. (“He doesn’t give a crap if you’re following the story or not,” he said.)

Denk opened with Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, displaying a touch that melted in the opening measures but could gently jolt you soon thereafter, bringing the piece seemingly forward into the 19th century. Next came Prokofiev’s complete “Visions Fugitives,” a collection of 20 little pieces, some lasting no more than half a minute. Some firebrand Prokofiev motor rhythms were here, and Denk hammered away with gusto, but most of the pieces were rather reflective. In general, the further you went into the cycle, the more of Prokofiev’s musical signatures crop up.

Denk did nothing to hide the strangeness of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30, Op. 109, elevating the contrast between tranquil passages and vehement ones. And Denk made a show-stopping passing storm of the penultimate pages of the finale, for which there is no better description than a quote from one of his funniest blog posts: “Trill, baby, trill!”

In the first two movements of the Schubert sonata, Denk really to went to work on the suspension of rhythm, using a variety of little rubatos and silences that may have disrupted the first movement’s unity yet elevated its mystery and introspection. There was, however, plenty of rhythm in the scherzo, and the finale had a sometimes playful question-and-answer character.

The Andante movement from Mozart’s Sonata No. 16, K. 545, delectably played, ended the evening pretty much where it began — reflectively.


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