Music out of synch at Ozawa Hall
LENOX - Leave it to pianist Jeremy Denk to devise a recital program based on the idea of discontinuities in time. He then proved the point at Tanglewood Wednesday night by highlighting and underlining fluctuations in dynamics, tempo, rhythm, color and key in works by Mozart, Prokofiev, Beethoven and Schumann.
Denk can be either stimulating or eccentric in concert. One of his most stimulating Tanglewood programs was a 2014 pairing of Ives' "Concord" Sonata and Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, each a monumental work that could stand alone on a program. This year, he seemed more intent on deconstructing the music at hand.
In a talk from the stage, Denk explained that the idea was to show how composers played with time, fragmenting it, to create almost dreamlike states. And indeed, everything here was in flux. It was a new way of hearing trusted old works like Beethoven's Sonata No. 30 and Schumann's Fantasie in C, but the essence often seemed to take second place.
The central work was Prokofiev's "Visions fugitives," 20 short character pieces - some only a few seconds long — with telltale titles such as "ridiculous," "unquiet" and, for the finale, "unrealistically." The various gestures — acerbic, ironic, humorous, occasionally sentimental — are familiar to anyone who knows the Prokofiev piano sonatas and concertos. Have you ever heard a piano laugh? At one point, it seemed to here.
Denk was in his element in this technically demanding brew. He had the hands and fingers to give each piece a distinctive flavor. But as impressive as the variety was the continuity he brought to the discontinuous string of 20. You'd never have known the pieces were composed individually over time and later stitched together to make a suite.
The other three pieces, the program notes pointed out, were also fugitive visions in their disparate ways.
Flex and flux, however, were less persuasive in Mozart's Rondo in A minor, K.511, and the Beethoven and Schumann pieces. Denk's experiments with time tended to over-interpret works even as he re-imagined them. The Mozart rondo was played with a roaming freedom that pointed up the underlying melancholy strain as if this were a full-blown romantic work.
From the stage, Denk described Beethoven as "a philosopher about time" who wanted to "reinvent" it. That pretty well tells how Denk played Opus 109, the first of Beethoven's trilogy of transcendental late sonatas. The abrupt opening movements, both brief, led into the final theme and variations as a kind of meditation on time, flowing here, flowing there, then ending in some ethereal place only Beethoven knew.
Schumann's fantasy, Denk pointed out, contains multiple references to Beethoven, but ultimately it is about Schumann's great love and future wife, Clara. One of the high-water marks of romanticism, the three-movement piece became almost anti-romantic as Denk rushed, pulled back or otherwise pointed up passages to create a lover's dreamlike state.
The enthusiastic audience won two encores: the slow movement from Mozart's Sonata in C, K.545, and a swirling transcription by Donald Lambert of the Pilgrims' Chorus from Wagner's "Tannhauser."
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