Jeremy Denk’s summer reaches its acme in mid-August, when he appears at three of the season’s most prestigious U.S. festivals – Bard (Aug 13-15), Mostly Mozart (Aug 17-19), and Tanglewood (Aug 21) – to give six prominent performances in little over a week. In repertoire ranging from solo and chamber to orchestral, and from composers of the First Viennese School to those of the Second, the versatile pianist collaborates with leading artists including Joshua Bell and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The first of these appearances is at Annandale-on-Hudson’s Bard Music Festival, which has won international acclaim for its unrivaled, in-depth exploration of the life and works of a single composer and his contemporaries, offering, in the words of the New York Times, a “rich web of context” for a full appreciation of that composer’s inspirations and significance. A veteran of the festival, last season Denk impressed the New York Times’s Steve Smith with playing that juxtaposed “tenderness personified” with his “more athletic side.” At this year’s celebration of “Berg and His World,” the pianist performs two important chamber works by the groundbreaking Austrian composer: the Piano Sonata, Op. 1, for Bard’s opening-night concert on August 13, and – with Paganini Competition-winner Soovin Kim and members of the resident American Symphony Orchestra – the Kammerkonzert for piano, violin, and 13 wind instruments, Op. 8, for the close of the festival’s first weekend on August 15.
As Denk once confided on his humorous and engaging blog, Think Denk, despite knowing Berg’s Kammerkonzert to be “one amazing piece,” he fears that others will hear in it only “disturbed waltz-tunes.” When he performed the work with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, however, he need not have worried. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Peter Dobrin declared that “if audience size were commensurate with artistic value, Berg’s Chamber Concerto…would have been enough to fill the house all by itself. In fact, it’s a work so overcrowded with genius, it should have been played twice.” Dobrin went on to applaud Denk’s “heroism,” skill as a “fastidious detail worker,” and ability to make “manipulation of tone as emotional a variant as the pitch of an actor’s voice.”
After taking his Berg interpretations to Bard, Denk returns for to New York City’s Mostly Mozart Festival, where he joins Joshua Bell and the Festival Orchestra under Louis Langrée for two performances of Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. Written for violin, piano, and strings in 1823, the work reveals its youthful composer’s delight in lyrical invention and virtuosity, lending itself perfectly to the winning partnership of Denk and Bell, themselves dubbed “young, gifted, and energetic” by the New York Times. As Vivien Schweitzer remarked in the same paper, “These two musicians are an ideally matched duo, with Mr. Denk’s fiery playing complementing Mr. Bell’s luxuriant singing tone.”
Mostly Mozart audiences also have the opportunity to hear Denk and Bell together in pre-concert recital; both orchestral concerts – on August 17 and 18 – will be preceded by performances of Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B-flat major, K.454. It was Denk’s distinguished Mozart interpretations that inspired the San Jose Mercury News’s Richard Scheinin to style him “a sensational musician.”
One of Mostly Mozart’s specialties is “A Little Night Music”: a series of late-night candle-lit concerts in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. The intimate setting brings solo performances into sharp and unforgiving focus, yet when Denk made one such appearance two years ago, he proved himself more than equal to the challenge, making a deep impression on the New York Times’s Allan Kozinn with his “nuanced, finely detailed performance.”
For his contribution to the series this season, on August 19, Denk has selected Liszt’s Dante Sonata, considered one of the most difficult works in the repertoire, and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, the composer’s last in the genre, which, like his other “late period” sonatas, features fugal elements and is technically very demanding. Yet Denk has a way with both composers that brings out not just challenges and depths, but their lighter side too; the New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini observed that:
“There was no trace of Germanic, granitic monumentality in Mr. Denk’s performance of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. >From his bracing account of the opening Allegro, taking a fleet tempo, through the insanely complex final fugue, its subject thick with finger-twisting trills, Mr. Denk’s playing was wonderfully light-textured, articulate and restless. Beethoven never wrote a thornier piece. Yet hints of Beethoven the daring improviser also came through in Mr. Denk’s fresh, risky and, when called for, boldly humorous performance.”
For the close of his intensive eight-day run, Denk rejoins Joshua Bell at the Tanglewood Music Festival on August 21, when the pair reprise Mendelssohn’s concerto, now with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Susanna Mälkki, a young Finnish conductor who, like Denk, is making her Tanglewood debut. If Denk’s previous collaborations in Boston are anything to go by, he seems likely to make quite an impression:
“Jeremy Denk was the pyrogenic force in every piece he played. He commands a huge range of colors and dynamics. … He has an unerring sense of the music’s dramatic structure and a great actor’s intuition for timing … He was the provocateur who urged his colleagues to dare all, to unleash every calorie of emotional heat.” – Ellen Pfeifer, Boston Globe