Pianist Jeremy Denk spans seven centuries in a nutshell at Tanglewood


LENOX >> Going through seven centuries of music in two hours is like going around the world in two days. You cover a lot of territory but don't see much of any one place.

Still, that seven-century epoch was the history lesson that pianist Jeremy Denk presented in his recital, "Medieval to Modern," at Tanglewood Wednesday night. In what he compared to time lapse photography, he stitched together two dozen short pieces, transcriptions and excerpts from the 13th century straight through the Renaissance and Romantic period to the today of Stockhausen, Glass and Ligeti.

Another analogy might be a tasting menu. Beguiling as Denk is as a thinker and musician, there were times when you wanted to call out, "Whoa, that's so beautiful, let's hear the whole thing." (Ah, that single Brahms intermezzo — more!)

The point of the exercise, Denk said in a program note, was to trace the evolution of musical language — "an epic story of human thought and ideals, of what we have found important to express in tones" — up to today's seeming chaos of styles.

An impossible project, better suited to the lecture hall? You forget, this is the pianist who, two summers ago, challenged impossibility by combining Bach's "Goldberg" Variations and Ives' "Concord" Sonata on a program, and made it work. (He's also, not coincidentally, a very intelligent writer on music.)

The tour through history began with Machaut, Binchois and Ockeghem and progressed, through Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, onward and upward to the moderns. Many of the early pieces were transcriptions of vocal music, which lost some of its character when transferred to the keyboard.

Denk proved himself a master of many styles, bringing modern ideas about phrasing and such to bear on music composed before such ideas were common. Yet his dramatic pauses and rushes in Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, seemed entirely natural to this often performed music.

The transition from piece to piece went smoothly; the connection between composers and languages was perhaps most evident in the progression from Brahms to Schoenberg.

"After this long story of style succeeding style, the question is: what is style?" Denk wrote. "Do we even know any more?"

After plowing through the thickets of Stockhausen and Ligeti, he provided half an answer by concluding the evening with a repeat of Binchois' "Triste plaisir." The simple troubadour melody had a calming, ethereal effect, almost like a benediction, that the recent avatars seemed to have put behind them.


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