Tanglewood: The Gospel according to Jeremy Denk

There was no air of showboating. Denk’s formidable technique was entirely put to the service of musical expression.

Among the many iterations of Beethoven’s “victory” theme from Symphony No. 5, to be heard in the Berkshires this summer, surely the most dazzling emerged on August 13 from the pen of Charles Ives and the heart and hands of Jeremy Denk. In Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1890,” which he completed in 1915, the theme recurs continually  This triumphal performance of one of the piano repertory’s most challenging works comprised the first half of the concert.

Previously in Ozawa Hall, the Emerson Quartet’s traversal of Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartets No.’s 12 and 13, completed in 1968 and 1978, gave martial emphasis – to wit, metaphorical machine-gun bursts – to the ta-ta-ta-tums. And every pops concert that includes George and Ira Gershwin’s “You Can’t Take That Away from Me” declaims their inspired inversion of the motif, deriving from a conversation in which the brothers were searching for “new” source material and came upon the opening of the Fifth. (It was Ira who suggested in a moment of genius adding a fifth note and jazzing up the four-note series. One cannot but wonder whether the juice of some other opening fifth may have dissolved his inhibitions.)

The second half of Denk’s magisterial concert was comprised of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, published in 1741. This piece as well represents an imposing challenge, not least because it occupies iconic status, because so many harpsichord and piano virtuosi have recorded it.

Furthermore, Bach wrote it for two-manual harpsichord. To make sense of the work on a single keyboard requires frequent crossings of the hands, all the while continuing three or four lines of counterpoint. Performing it live, as opposed to the recording studio is a Herculean task. Dangers lurk everywhere, and mistakes are brazenly obvious and can’t be edited away.

Jeremy Denk in performance at Ozawa Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott
Jeremy Denk in performance at Ozawa Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott

Assembling these masterpieces in a single concert generates a vibe of excited anticipation. Jan Swafford characterized Denk’s daring to perform them together in his thoughtful notes in the Tanglewood program:

“Pianist Jeremy Denk has made a specialty of programs like this one, uniting formidable works that most pianists would not have the strength or the chutzpah to attempt in one sitting. Anyone who has heard Denk in this kind of program, however, knows that with him it is not an athletic endeavor but a distinctive kind of artistic probing: let’s put together these monumental pieces and see how they illuminate one another.”

Your reviewer has listened with admiration to Jeremy Denk on several occasions and contexts, in recital with the flutist, Paula Robison, previously performing the Concord Sonata, and, with Joshua Bell and the BSO, in Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D minor for violin, piano, and strings. But never have I heard Denk express such a resplendent array of pianistic colors, such illumination of even the smallest embellishments, such clarity of the multiple contrapuntal lines and arcs of phrase that cohere in Bach’s movements, and such a transparent comprehension of the architecture of the entire corpus.

It was no wonder, then, that when the Goldberg came to an end, after Denk’s reverential restatement of the opening aria, the audience sat for 10 seconds of astonished silence. For many, this was as satisfying a concert experience as they could remember, on the same plane as Horowitz’s Sunday afternoon concerts in 1965, when he emerged from years of seclusion. Revelatory, elevating, transcendent, and thrilling are the nonmusical adjectives that come readily to mind. But it was the artistic structure that spoke to Jeremy Denk’s musical genius.

Jeremy Denk in performance of Bach's 'Goldberg Variations.' Photo: Hilary Scott
Jeremy Denk in performance of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations.’ Photo: Hilary Scott

What united the two halves of the program was the interplay of thematic material. In the Ives, several sustaining themes appeared and reappeared, often unexpectedly, in repetition, inversion, fragmentary integration, and in contrapuntal variation, such as the stunning set of crossovers at the end of the second, “Hawthorne” movement, in which Denk struck with his left hand, near the top of the keyboard, single sforzandos that composed in a minute’s time a melodic reiteration over a background of roiling, swirling, dense, interior lines and chords.

The 25th variation of the Bach, a stately adagio framed in ambiguous three-quarter time, resembling curiously Ives’s intentional omission of bar lines, found Denk intensely exploring the meaning of previously-uttered thematic material, as if, after all this travail, to finally identify man’s place in the world. Each non-harmonic passing note seemed to be worthy of emphasis. These unanticipated chromatics, appoggiaturas, and leading tones pulled for deep emotion, and Denk’s exquisite left hand –stressed from but not defeated by all the preceding acrobatics – seemed to toll like a bell across a churchyard.

With reason, the harpsichord virtuoso, Wanda Landowska, an idol of your reviewer’s childhood, called this movement the “black pearl” of the Goldberg variations. In this performance it was darkly resonant.

When the distinguished music critic Tim Page, during an interview with Glenn Gould, suggested that the Adagio movement “had an extraordinary chromatic texture,” Gould responded, “”I don’t think there’s been a richer lode of enharmonic relationships any place between Gesualdo and Wagner.”

Here, Gould referred to pitches that have identical sounds but different names and functions, for example, in the key of E major, the Gsharp that gives the fundamental triad its happy sound, can pivot seamlessly to Aflat, enabling a modulation to a sad Fminor. Bach used this compositional device adroitly in the cantatas, and, famously, in the canon per tonos (“endlessly rising”) from “The Musical Offering,” which he dedicated to Frederick the Great with flattery that only a musician-monarch could appreciate: “As the modulation ascends, so may the glory of the King.”

Apropos of Goldberg Variations and artistic royalty, it would be well to note that Jeremy Denk eschewed in this performance the histrionics of Gould’s “fast” 1955 version and the agonized probing of his 1981 version, his last recording before dying at the age 50. The self-conscious emotional exertions that too often intrude on Bach performance are entirely absent in the Denk oeuvre.

At the outset of the concert, Denk, dressed casually, offered warm and inviting introductory remarks, gently guiding the audience on what to listen for. He established an usual sense of friendly connection and shared adventure. What followed was indeed ingenuous, fresh, and daring. One felt taken along on a scenic tour by an admired and knowledgeable companion whose driving skills inspired confidence.

Illustration by Sol Schwartz.
Illustration by Sol Schwartz.

After a left hand assertion of the Beethoven 5th motif at the beginning of the first movement, “Emerson,” of the Ives, Denk summoned his promised sense of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendalist beliefs in soft, sweet, impressionistic, passionately-expressed waves of sound.

A bit of explication of Emerson’s beliefs is in order. In his essay, “The Over-Soul,” published in 1841, the core Transcendentalist belief –that all things are connected to God, and God is to be found in all things – is developed further. (Emerson was influenced as well, he wrote in his diary, by his study of the Indian Vedas.)

“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.”

Emerson also rejected, quite controversially, the man/God dualism. He asserted in an invited 1838 Harvard Divinity School address that not only was Jesusnot God but that historical Christianity had turned Jesus into a “demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo.” This provoked accusations from the Protestant establishment that Emerson was a poisoner of young men’s minds –and an atheist to boot. Harvard didn’t invite him back for 30 years.

Ives, himself an iconoclast who suffered from the rejection of the musical establishment, was keenly aware of this controversy, and the Emerson movement roiled with impassioned dialogue.

Repeated descending phrases ended in short bursts of upswept notes that appeared to symbolize the posing of multiple questions. They were followed by mighty octaves, arguably stern answers, which Denk counterpoised with elegance, not harshness.

The Beethoven 5th motif recurred frequently in a major, as opposed to its typically minor, tonality (see Gershwin, above, and turn that “You Can’t Take That Away from Me” melody over). Dense chromatics nearly buried the theme at certain points. And soon, the hymn theme was back, anticipating the close of the movement in a hushed choir of echoing washes.

But in the portentous final cadence, there was both ambiguity and uncertainty. Major and minor tonalities sounded simultaneously. Irreconcilable philosophies appeared to coexist. And Emerson’s integrity and craggy character maintained.

The following movement, “Hawthorne,” celebrates the writer’s playful storytelling rather than his rigid morality. Ives, in one of his essays, disclosed that the “Hawthorne” movement was propelled by a desire to “suggest some of his [Hawthorne’s] wilder, fantastical adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms.”

(Hawthorne’s “House of the Seven Gables” is often read as a story of nature’s punishing generations of selfish behavior, and his “Scarlet Letter” as personifying the good woman gone bad in Hester Prynne.)

Denk dramatically illustrated the more fantastical realms in the presto with pauses, syncopations, and dollops of contemporary ragtime redolent of the celebrated pianist-composer Eubie Blake (who published his virtuosical “Charleston Rag” in 1899, the same year in which Scott Joplin’s much less technically challenging “Maple Leaf Rag” swept across the upright pianos of American parlors.)

Ives’s notorious 14 and ¾ inch piece of wood, specified in the score, was deployed gently across the black keys, its right edge descending successively on Eflat, Db, Bb, and Ab. Thusly, Denk lent a fabulous, soft, pentatonic overlay to the dissonant melodic excursions in the left hand. (It is well to note that Ives made this farsighted technical contribution to piano performance long prior to the so-called “prepared pianos” that Hector Villalobos and John Cage scored in 1925 and 1938, respectively.)

After a burst of chromatic intensity, the heavens opened. A lovely, half-famiiar hymn, “Martyn” emerged. Ives derived this idea from Hawthorne’s story “The Celestial Rail-Road,” a parody of Pilgrim’s Progress, the 17th century Christian allegory by John Bunyan, in which a man, Christian, makes his burdened way to the Celestial City from his hometown “The City of Destruction.” Ives’s American travelers, by contrast, take a train (what better newfangled carriage?) to the Heavenly City, listening to the hymn of the pilgrims who are trudging there on foot.

This kaleidoscope of images devolved to a wildly-chromatic quotation of Ives’s “Country Band March” from “The Fourth of July in Concord, juicily blasted over an oom-pah stride in the left hand. In Denk’s treatment, there was a sense of a nearly out-of-control celebration in which different musics, singers, and dancers collide delightfully. For sure, Ives’s Civil War bandmaster father, George, his principal musical influence, would have loved this evocation of one of his favorite musical memories.

The third “Alcott” movement interwove hymns and Beethoven into a wondrous fabric, with motif and rhythm mounting in intensity and excitement, then declining into a luscious calm, with an exquisite folky, pentatonic melody, reminiscent of Stephen Foster’s popular romanticism.

Listen, please, to Ives himself playing the “Alcott” movement. Even correcting for the primitive recording quality, it’s a rather wooden treatment of this richly-expressive work.


Now watch Jeremy Denk’s performance (exquisite and far superior to the composer’s, in your reviewer’s opinion) at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

Note Denk’s calm and unaffected demeanor, his delicious immersion in the music, and the fascinating results he derives from Ives’s multiple expressions of the Beethoven 5th theme in many keys and registers; and his sensitive dynamics in the hymns, giving them extra emotion. And, especially, listen for the many colors that Denk is able to pull from the piano toward the end, when a forthright, contrapuntal development paves the way to a fabulous, declamatory series of emphasized major chords on the Beethoven rhythm in the right hand over octaves in the left. The movement ends on an optimistic C major chord that dissolves into an uncertain B flat. It aches to resolve to F major, but it doesn’t. In Denk’s interpretation, there’s a touch of whimsy, rather than an anxious anticipation of unknowns that will certainly follow.

Ives wrote in his “Essays” that the final movement of the Concord Sonata, titled “Thoreau,” depicts a day at Walden Pond:

“If there shall be a program for our music, let it follow his [Thoreau’s] thought on an autumnday of Indian summer at Walden.”

In his “Essays,” Ives associated his father and Thoreau as loveable “cranks,” as well as admirable musicians. A month after Ives entered Yale in October, 1894, his father died. It was a bitter loss, and Ives would remark all through his life of his father’s profound influence on him. Indeed, he began his musical experimentation with his father, even while continuing his musical studies with Horatio Parker. This movement is often considered to memorialize both Thoreau and George Ives.

Denk began the movement in quiet contemplation, and recited carefully a repeating row: D, E, Fsharp, A, B, that gave a familiar, pentatonic cast that we recalled from the piece of wood’s pressing on the black keys in “Hawthorne.” But here, the mood was decidedly different. Calm, not harmonic collision, prevailed.

A series of half-familiar melodies were given sweet emphasis, including, curiously, a specific quotation of Stephen Foster’s so-called “Ethiopian” song of 1852, “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground.” In a tribute to an outspoken abolitionist, this bit of blackface hokum, however popular in the minstrelsy of the post-Civil War period, came across as contradictory, even tasteless. Perhaps Ives’s father, George, performed it and enjoyed it. Whatever. Denk had no choice but to state it.

Toward the end, an offstage flute sounded another pentatonic melody on C, D, E, G, and A, rising to a quotation of the hymn from the first movement and the three E’s of the major version of the Beethoven 5 motif. A repeated 3-note ostinato rumbled quietly in the left hand, several quiet chords and another, gentle 5-note row ended the piece with the feeling of a memorial.

Louisa May Alcott, whose happy family life Ives celebrated in the “Alcott” movement, published a poem, “Thoreau’s Flute,” in the Atlantic Magazine in 1863. Its fervent evocation of music as a spiritual balm – both to accompany lamentation, and to lift the memory of a deceased great man, beyond grieving, to a level of permanent memorial. This is the sense the Ozawa Hall audience was left with at the intermission.

WE, sighing, said, “Our Pan is dead;
  His pipe hangs mute beside the river;
  Around it wistful sunbeams quiver,
But Music’s airy voice is fled.
Spring mourns as for untimely frost;         5
  The bluebird chants a requiem;
  The willow-blossom waits for him;
The Genius of the wood is lost.”
Then from the flute, untouched by hands,
  There came a low, harmonious breath:         10
  “For such as he there is no death;
His life the eternal life commands;
Above man’s aims his nature rose:
  The wisdom of a just content
  Made one small spot a continent,         15
And turned to poetry Life’s prose.
“Haunting the hills, the stream, the wild,
  Swallow and aster, lake and pine,
  To him grew human or divine,—
Fit mates for this large-hearted child.         20
Such homage Nature ne’er forgets,
  And yearly on the coverlid
  ’Neath which her darling lieth hid
Will write his name in violets.
“To him no vain regrets belong,         25
  Whose soul, that finer instrument,
  Gave to the world no poor lament,
But wood-notes ever sweet and strong.
O lonely friend! he still will be
  A potent presence, though unseen,—         30
  Steadfast, sagacious, and serene:
Seek not for him,—he is with thee.”

After the intermission, equally relaxed and none the worse for wear, Denk gave the most penetrating account of the Goldberg that this reviewer has ever heard. Among the high points:

A keen sense of propulsive rhythm propelled each movement, with the exception of the aforementioned Adagio. There were no out-of-context rubatos or rallentendos.

The tempi were well chosen and were, if anything, moderate. Only in the final Presto in 6/8 meter, just prior to the penultimate, stately Quodlibet movement that presages the final statement of the opening Aria, did Denk let it all hang out, in brilliant, fast-paced abandon. A technical marvel, with buzzing trills, astoundingly accurate cross-overs, whizzing legatos, and parenthetical phrases expressed in different volumes, it couldn’t have been played with more exciting dazzle.

There was no air of showboating. Denk’s formidable technique was entirely put to the service of musical expression.

The absolute silence of the house all during the performance, notable particularly in Variation 13, where Denk made sense of the horizontal dissonances over a G minor ground, easing the harmonic transition to D major through Bflat major and back to Gminor but focusing attention on the D enharmonic on which the modulations pivoted. All the while, each contrapuntal line was articulated precisely. Denk took optimal advantage here of the splendid resonance of Ozawa Hall, where you could hear a pin drop.

On the subject of quiet, there’s a particular video of the Aria that opens and closes the Goldberg Variations that caught your reviewer’s eye, by the pianist Kimiko Ishizaka. It’s remarkable for its similarity to Denk’s interpretation in its calm contemplation of what’s to come and of what life itself portends, and, what’s more, it shows the manuscript, proceeding note by note.

Enjoy it please, and don’t miss the opportunity to travel to wherever Jeremy Denk is summoning a vision of a Celestial Kingdom. Which is to say, in this reviewer’s opinion, whenever he performs.