Jeremy Denk plays Schumann and Bach at Los Alamos

Jeremy Denk played Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze and Bach's Goldberg Variations at Los Alamos' Duane Smith Auditorium last Saturday (January 12), presented by the Los Alamos Concert Association.  A wonderful experience to hear two long works, each consisting of a sequence of many short pieces, and each among the pinnacles of keyboard music of their respective (romantic and baroque) musical eras.  Do not miss a chance to hear Denk play this repertoire.  The Schumann is a fascinating compendium of romantic gestures and episodes, only occasionally rambling and soft-edged as Schumann can be, mostly quite focused and beautifully shaped.   Denk's touch, as compared to some pianists, seems just slightly firm, and sometimes a bit monolithic on chords, sometimes slanting his interpretations towards the architectonic rather than the lyrical.  This could be quite piano-dependent, of course, and is not a bad thing.  In any case the last 10 minutes or so of the Schumann were pure song as played by Denk.  The Goldberg was a magnificent experience, sometimes recalling Glenn Gould's 1950s version with fast tempos (though there was no sense of excessively fast tempos overall), and great clarity, especially rhythmically.  Inner voices were often brought out, though less compulsively and analytically than by Gould.  In this piece Denk, playing a 9-foot Steinway, got an effect somewhat like a performance on a large, powerful, harpsichord---a coherent, speaking-with-one-voice impression, while still taking advantage of the piano's more lyrical potential when called for.  Very rarely, the faster tempos in certain variations left me momentarily feeling confused about the beat, but that might have been due to a momentary lapse of attention on my part, and in any case was made up for by the powerful overall impact of those same fast tempos.  Denk's touch is relatively precise, but not excessively glassy or percussive, rather just slightly soft-edged, keeping things clear and well-defined but without getting clanky and aggressive nor dry.  Just beautiful in the Goldbergs.

We got Mr. Denk back out for an encore: he played a fairly lengthy, and very familiar piece by Chopin in a somewhat dreamy, musing mood... probaby a ballade or nocturne...I should know the name.  It was magic.  Somebody brightened and dimmed the house lights accidentally toward the end, making the audience laugh, and breaking the spell a bit, I thought.  Whether the spell was broken in his playing, or just in my attention, I'm not sure... a shame, but not a huge one, since as I said most of the encore was pure enchantment.

Denk is about to record, or perhaps has just recorded, the Goldbergs;  I plan on getting it when it comes out.  I'm also very interested to see he's recorded some Ligeti, and Ives' Concord Sonata... I listened extensively to Gilbert Kalish's wonderful version of the latter masterpiece on a Nonesuch LP a couple of decades ago, but from what I've heard of Denk's playing, I'd love to hear him do it.