Review: Between two willful interpreters, Denk wins with Bach |

Review: Between two willful interpreters, Denk wins with Bach

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Musicians at two successive recitals at the Aspen Music Festival this week put their own spins on familiar music. The results could not have been more different. On Wednesday Jeremy Denk succeeded in breathing the variety of life into one of J.S. Bach’s great keyboard works. Tuesday, violinist Vladimir Gluzman manhandled music by Stravinsky, Franck and Ravel. Both, of course, got standing ovations.

Denk stepped in on short notice for German pianist Martin Helmchen, the second international artist in the past week who canceled an appearance here because of a delayed visa. Helmchen had included two Bach partitas on his program, but Denk took on an even bigger challenge — Bach’s The Well-Tempered Klavier Book 1. His atmospheric playing, humor, and a distinctly high level of musicianship shaped this monumental work into something even more special.

Denk is a thinker. He expounds on every aspect of music in major publications and now in Every Good Boy Does Fine, a remarkably accessible new book that’s secretly about what musicians want to communicate. Although other pianists may flaunt greater technique than Denk’s, he is amply accomplished to cast music he cares about in a fresh and vibrant light.

Bach wrote this collection of 24 preludes and fugues, one for each major and minor key, as exercises for harpsichord players. A modern piano’s dynamic range and flexibility allow Denk to shape a style that feels both modern and classic at the same time. It may not be what other pianists present in this music, but that’s the point.

Not for Denk the willfully insistent tempos and Old Testament gravitas of Glenn Gould, nor András Schiff’s tender, deferential modesty, or even Angela Hewitt’s freewheeling flow, to name just a few of the great interpreters of this music. Denk seeks, and finds, a specific mood for each prelude and its accompanying fugue. One could easily imagine Bach appreciating all of it.

In the oh-so-familiar first prelude in C major, he floated the arpeggios’ ever-shifting harmonies serenely, making sure each note got its due rather than eliding them all under the pedal. When a chord ached to resolve, Denk let it hang there an extra split-second to relish Bach’s harmonies, unusually colorful for the Baroque era. The C minor prelude, much freer and expressive, raced ahead with its broken chords and its rapid flourishes, and the fugue began like a dance with its rhythmic figures lilting gently, alternating between crisp staccato articulation and touches of supple legato until they slid smoothly into a final C major chord with a sly smile.

So it went, with the preludes shamelessly displaying their individuality, the fugues ranging from slow, somber minor-key seriousness to bouncy, exuberant races at a finger-busting rapid clip. Through it all, the lead voice always emerged with just enough emphasis. If Denk wanted us to have something fresh to chew on, he never got in the way of Bach’s intentions—at heart, both theatrical and utterly rational.

Denk responds to the music as he is playing it, much like a jazz artist. Much of it even sounded improvised Wednesday, his interpretations seemingly bubbling up on the spot. When, as an encore, Denk reprised the C major prelude that began the evening, he played it with less hesitance this time, more assured yet still serene, a perfect ending.

To be fair, violinist Vadim Gluzman’s recital Tuesday did conjure a few minutes of simple magic with Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s introverted Five Pieces for Violin and Piano. For 18 sweet minutes, the Ukrainian-born Israeli made his 1690 ‘ex-Leopold Auer’ Stradivari fiddle sing eloquently, with grace and refinement, as pianist William Wolfram framed the music deftly.

This music breathed, an element that was in short supply from big, broad, extroverted music on the rest of the program.

Stravinsky’s Suite italienne, the composer’s arrangement of neo-classical music from his ballet Pulcinella, lurched from phrase to phrase with little space to let the subtleties come through. In his Violin Sonata in A major the Romantic era composer Franck tried to make the duo sound like a whole orchestra, but this steamroller of a performance missed opportunities for respite in quiet moments. Ravel’s Tzigane, rapsodie de concert, revved up so much momentum there was little room for delicate subtleties to come through and create a needed balance. It was exhausting rather than exhilarating.


Pianist Arie Vardi, who teamed with other pianists last year for an evening of Bach on many pianos, turns to Mozart for a similarly structured evening tonight in Harris Hall. French-born conductor Lionel Bringuier and violinist Diana Adamyan make their Aspen debuts Sunday with the Festival Orchestra. And then, Monday and Tuesday “Sound of Music” becomes the latest classic Broadway show to get the full orchestra treatment in the music tent, co-presented with Theatre Aspen. Conductor Andy Einhorn and singer Christy Altimore return from last year’s “South Pacific” crew.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music festival for 29 years. His reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.