Ligeti, Piano Études, J. Denk (2012)
Ives, Piano Sonatas, J. Denk (2010)
The results were least pleasing in the opening Bach, my favorite of the English Suites (G minor, BWV 808), where Denk emphasized speed over detail in the fast prelude, courante, and gigue, so that trills were often smudged and runs elided. Abundant use of the sustaining pedal obscured the allemande and sarabande, both quite unctuous, while the gavottes had a music-boxy fairy dust quality, sometimes so light in the keys that tone barely registered. Although Denk did not make the connection in his brief remarks mid-recital, all but the prelude in the suite are dance pieces, making what could have been a natural segue to the "iPod shuffle" set examining the influence of American ragtime that concluded the second half. (I had to miss Denk's jazz-classical "playoff" with Jason Moran on Friday night, because of a medical emergency: thanks to Robert Battey for pinch-hitting for me at the last minute for the Washington Post.)
Curiously, Denk took the same over-delicate approach to Scott Joplin's Sunflower Slow Drag, co-written with Scott Hayden, echoed in the later work that was the closest to it, William Bolcom's Graceful Ghost Rag, played even more sotto voce. This was not at all the sound of the rag imitated by Stravinsky in his Piano Rag Music, a jagged jangle of clashes and metric complexity, nor the "Ragtime" movement in Hindemith's 1922 Suite, which was on the vicious side. Both pieces date from before their composers immigrated to the United States, and both came to a more nuanced understanding of jazz after living here. William Byrd's ninth pavan (The Passinge Mesures), from My Ladye Nevelles Booke, and Conlon Nancarrow's first Canon for Ursula had only a tangential relationship to ragtime music, in that they had different kinds of rhythmic complexity. Denk likewise seemed to include
Simon Chin, Denk shows range in ‘iPod shuffle’ (Washington Post, October 13)
Robert Battey, Two musicians in their prime, sharing music from their genres (Washington Post, October 10)
The only disappointment was that Denk did not play something for the "Sphinxes" movement. It is not really a movement, just the work's three letter-based themes (referring to Schumann and the birthplace of his one-time fiancée, Ernestine von Fricken) written in long notes, but I had hoped that Denk might do something unexpected with them. Instead, as with so many performances, the puzzles of the sphinx were left unposed, probably what Schumann intended, but not what one expects from someone like Denk.
Washington Performing Arts's Hayes Piano Series continues this Saturday, with a recital by pianist Herbert Schuch (October 17, 2 pm).