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RECITAL REVIEW

Jeremy Denk Feb. 13 in Weill Hall (J. McNeill Photo)

LUSH BACH PERFORMANCE IN DENK'S WEILL HALL RECITAL

by Terry McNeill
Thursday, February 13, 2020

Memorable artistic interpretations of musical masterpieces are often at extremes, and with the Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC - Book I) that Jeremy Denk played in Weill Hall Feb. 13, the pianist was only sporadically at unique or ebullient musical ends.

But his playing wasn’t exactly at opposites, such as old classic recordings of Edwin Fischer (1936) with a modicum of damper pedaling, and Glenn Gould’s pointillism approach (1965), and currently Andras Schiff’s WTC readings with no pedal use at all. Mr. Denk’s mood before an audience of 800 that was sprinkled with local pianists was a mixture of modesty and introspection that gave the music the needed cohesion in a long recital. You had the feeling that this was the artist’s stamp of secure approval of a masterpiece.

In remarks from the stage the pianist mentioned that the music was yet to be firm in his memory, and thus there was a page turner. But the turner didn’t do much to earn his keep, as Mr. Denk did most of his own turning and often didn’t look at the score. He spoke about the spirituality of the music composed in 1722, and the difference from the Goldberg Variations that he recently played in a studio recording that for me had speedy tempos and sonic clarity.

The playing throughout the 111 minutes and one long intermission was not to the taste of many Bach keyboard devotees. It’s well known that in Weill legato playing can generate muddy sound, especially in Baroque music and even in composers such as Schumann, and Mr. Denk all evening used the damper pedal lavishly. The Hall’s instrument, perfectly in tune, was warmly voiced, and this added to a lush sound foreign to much Bach. Perhaps an old Baldwin piano, or a new Bösendorfer, would have sounded better for Bach’s WTC under Mr. Denk’s virtuosic fingers and feet?

That said, there was much felicitous playing. He almost always arpeggiated final chords in the slower fugues, played lovely graded crescendos, emphasized appoggiaturas and demonstrated keen dynamic control in soft playing for long periods. At the end of many phrases ritards were deftly done, and throughout there were just a few brief hesitations in the music’s flow, presumably due to the announced “yet to be fully baked” memorization. His left hand jumps off of accented notes were not for visual emphasis, but made sonic sense in mostly individual Preludes, but also in the dancing 19th Fugue in A. The B Flat Prelude and Fugue (No. 21) was played as a brilliant Toccata that had wonderful rhythmic vitality. Many fermatas were held for long seconds, enhancing the beauty.

At the beginning of the second half Mr. Denk announced that he would follow the final spiritual B Minor Prelude and Fugue, which has the longest fugue in the set, with a repetition of Book I’s opening Prelude in C Major. Oddly the playing of the C Major was slightly faster than the opening version, but it ended with a quiet arpeggiated chord that held the audience in rapt reverence. As the music finally crept into silence, a roar of audience approval erupted with a standing ovation.

Sonoma State Music Dept. Professor Alexander Kahn’s pre-recital lecture on Bach and the WTC was erudite, and surely helped many in the audience to appreciate the odyssey of hearing Mr. Denk in this magisterial music.