Review: Jeremy Denk at Hahn Hall

Accalimed Pianist Returned to S.B. on Wednesday, July 17

As if conjured from a piano lover’s wish list, Wednesday night’s recital at the Music Academy was a dream program of two iconic suites, one for the right brain and one for the left, played by one of the hippest pianists on the classical music scene these days. Last March at Campbell Hall, Jeremy Denk performed a memorable Santa Barbara debut courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures. And this week, only four months later, the New York City pianist again materialized before us, this time in the intimate quarters of Hahn Hall.

Open-minded patrons arrived at this TBA program expecting to witness fine keyboard artistry wherever it might fall along the broad spectrum of Denk specialties. Over the years, Denk has dabbled in J.S. Bach partitas, songs of Charles Ives, and excursions into the combustive combination of György Ligeti and Beethoven, as were featured on his 2012 CD. What no one could possibly have expected was precisely what we got: the pairing of Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 with the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 by J.S. Bach. In his introduction, Denk himself admitted, with a wry wit, that the two pieces “have absolutely nothing to do with each other,” unless perhaps “a relationship of nemesis.” In soft tones of bemused defiance, Denk frequently relishes juxtapositions that flout easy sense and category. The Schumann is romantic in the extreme, forged in the blaze of young Robert’s love for his future wife, the brilliant pianist Clara Wieck. Its 18 movements impulsively swerve through extreme tones of unguarded elation and longing, one answering the next fitfully, reactively. The Bach, by contrast, is a mature geometer’s study, a consummate and controlled evolution of form, ticking through 32 gears of a Newtonian clock.

A bold program for a debut recital at the MAW? Yes. But then again, “coolly bold” seems to be the Denk way, a confidence grounded in obsessively thorough preparation. These works, played entirely from memory, have long cultured in the imagination and sinews of the pianist. Clarity and command were abundantly evident, but so was a signature sense of exploratory wonder by an artist who Vanity Fair rightly calls “a frontiersman.”

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