Exquisite, spellbinding pianism: Jeremy Denk at Milton Court


When the concert is perfect, does that make the reviewer redundant?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I enjoy writing about the concerts I attend but I also struggle with the purpose and value of concert reviews. At the most fundamental level, a review is a record of the event, setting it in context and as a moment in history. A review should also offer readers a flavour of the event and the thoughts and opinion of the reviewer about that event. When I left Milton Court last night I told my concert companion I could not write about the concert we’d just attended because it was so perfect that to write about it could not possibly do justice to the quality of the performance…..

Last night I attended American pianist Jeremy Denk’s concert at Milton Court, one of London’s newest concert venues and, in my opinion, the finest for piano music because of the clarity of its acoustic. Add a pianist whose musical insight and intellectual clarity, magical touch and sense of pacing bring the music to life so that you want to hear him “no matter what he performs” (NY Times), and we have the makings for an evening of exceptionally fine pianism.

It was a typically piquant programme, changed from the published version to include just three works – two magisterial, transcendent late sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert and Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives, twenty fleeting miniatures, by turns quirky, ethereal, rambunctious, grotesque, poetic, delicate, fragmentary….. Denk revealed their individual characters so carefully, so delightfully that each tiny gem felt like a stand alone piece in its own right.

Beethoven’s piano sonata in E, op 109, the first of his triptych of last sonatas, also opens with a fragment – a tiny arabesque of just two notes in the right hand to which the left hand replies with a similar figure. It’s not a melody, yet that opening is immediately memorable. In Denk’s hands the music unfolded before us, its narrative flow so naturally paced. A muscular middle movement which dissolved into a theme and six variations, surely some of the most transcendent Beethoven ever wrote and handled with a delicacy and robustness, when required, by Denk which pulled one into this otherwordly soundworld so completely that one was transported, fully engaged and utterly overwhelmed. It was akin to meditating.

It felt almost wrong to leave the auditorium for the interval and face the noisy crush around the bar, but we knew the second half would take us to another special place, the unique world of late Schubert, his final sonata completed just a few months before his death.

Is the Sonata in B flat, D960 Schubert’s “final word”? A valediction for his departure from this world? I’ve always been suspicious of this view of this great sonata, whose expansive opening movement is like a great river charting is final course before the ocean, and whose finale is a joyful outpouring of hope, a reminder perhaps that Schubert had more, much more to say, had he lived longer. This was certainly Denk’s take on Schubert’s last sonata. The opening movement’s first theme had the serenity of a hymn, the second theme more unsettled, but the overall sense of repose remained, occasionally interrupted by dark, but never ominous, rumbling bass trills.

The meditative quality of the Beethoven variations was felt again in the slow movement of the D960. In some pianist’s hands, this movement can sound funereal, but Denk gave it a mystical grace and a sense of forward movement, so that the warmth of the A major middle section when it came infused rather than surprised the ear. The Scherzo poured forth with the agile freshness of a sparkling mountain stream, but the Trio reminded us that melancholy is never fair away in Schubert’s world, the bass accents (too often overlooked in other performances/recordings) here perfectly highlighting the change of mood….

The finale opens with a bare G, potentially as cold as the opening of the first Impromptu, but a dancing sprightly rondo quickly ensures, rising to a joyous conclusion, all masterfully and imaginatively presented by Denk. The overall pacing of this Sonata, like the Beethoven, was so elegantly managed: it is a long work (around 40 minutes) yet Denk’s clear sense of a through narrative and overall architecture of the music ensured there were no longueurs, not a moment when the mind wandered to other realms.

The encore was Brahms’ ever popular Intermezzo in A, from the Op 118. Tender and poignant, it was a lovely conclusion to an exceptionally fine evening of pianism.

when I have felt in the moment of the performance I have brought the notes on the page to life in a weird way which is outside of me – that is the kind of success that I am after

– Jeremy Denk (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Meet the Artist – Jeremy Denk