Monday, April 25, 2016

Jeremy Denk at the Palladium: A syncopation survey, followed by Schubert to the max

Encountering massive change to the printed program was hardly surprising at Jeremy Denk's solo recital Sunday afternoon at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.

The protean pianist, a cunning interpreter of mainstream masterpieces as well as a deep delver into more obscure repertoire, did some shuffling with the order in the first half and, after intermission, replaced his original Haydn-Beethoven-Schubert design with the monumental Schubert Sonata in B-flat, D. 960.

Jeremy Denk: a master of Schubertian rhetoric, among other things.
A provocative commentator on music both on- and offstage (his blog, think denk, is a must-read, but does not seem to be current), Denk was a lively guide to the bulk of the recital's first half. The curtain-raiser is well worth mentioning right away, however: He captivated the Palladium audience with his performance of J.S. Bach's English Suite No. 3 in G minor.

Highlights included the Courante, with every voice immaculately set forth and balanced against its fellows; crisp, dancing accounts of the two Gavottes, with the intervening Musette given so much character it almost stole the show; and the Gigue, which managed to be — suitably — both insouciant and mysterious. A younger Bach specialist has achieved renown for ingratiating Bach playing that's almost salon-ish, but Denk has no truck with that kind of thing. (He returned to Bach for an encore, showing with one of the Goldberg Variations that Bach's reflective side needn't be limp.)

The seven pieces that followed constituted an idiosyncratic collection of real ragtime, funhouse-mirror ragtime, shirttail-cousin ragtime and proto-ragtime pieces. The last-named category was occupied by the Elizabethan master William Byrd's Pavan and Galliard in D minor (from "Lady Nevell's Book"). Denk reveled in the thickets of ornamentation and the occasional rhythmic offcenteredness that allowed him to claim the work as ragtime avant la lettre.

The expatriate modernist Conlon Nancarrow tested the controlled independence of Denk's hands with Canon, in which tempo discrepancy is the main generator of this difficult exercise in the imitative form. The relation to ragtime lies in the contrast of right and left hands and, especially here, in the complexity of rhythmic displacement — the tugs and pushes, the constant messing with the beat. Denk aced it.

The classic "Sunflower Slow Drag" of Scott Joplin and Scott Hayden launched the series charmingly. Like many pianists since the dawn of ragtime, Denk ignored Joplin's directive that ragtime should never be played fast. To a limited extent, the warning — like Beethoven's metronome markings — can be worth ignoring, and so it was here. The gentle side of the genre that Joplin took pains to promote was updated superbly by William Bolcom in his "Graceful Ghost Rag"; Denk summoned the spirit genially, and (unlike Shakespeare's Owen Glendower), it came when he did call for it.

Cultural appropriation — that bugbear of today's regressive leftists — was a refreshing tributary to the classical mainstream in the 20th century. Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky put the innovative American genre through their personal filters with, respectively, "Ragtime" (from "Suite 1922") and "Piano-Rag-Music."  Denk's delight in shaping refined, articulate noise served both pieces well.

The first half closed with Donald Lambert's ragging of the Pilgrim's Chorus from "Tannhauser," a riproaring send-up of the foursquare tune. In Denk's hands, the arrangement came off less as mockery than as a revelation of another aspect of the melody, sped-up and riding confidently over a jumpy "stride" left hand.

Schubert: Ethos and pathos
Ancient rhetoricians held up two main proofs of their arguments, ethos and pathos. "Proof" means a test, not a slam-dunk substantiation. Franz Schubert's instrumental music — especially the Great C Major Symphony, the string quartets, and the piano sonatas — seems particularly understandable in that way. By "ethos," the Greeks meant a demonstration of the speaker's character, an indication of his worthiness to be believed and his credentials for bringing an audience around. "Pathos" is the appeal to the emotions that can't be separated from getting any point of view across successfully. It's why the philosophers were suspicious of rhetoric as insufficiently devoted to reason.

The expansiveness of the B-flat major sonata, Schubert's last, sets forward his ethos. He is asking the audience to indulge in his broad view of life, the splendid horizons that keep receding, using the argument that taking such a stance is necessary in art. Ethically considered, there should be no hurry about this. But his gift as a melodist enables him also to demonstrate that the ethical long view is inevitably challenged by the pathos of continual change. Thus, tunes are interrupted, occasionally divided, shifted in register, and subject to major-minor swerving and suspenseful pauses.

This is powerful rhetoric for pianists who are patient and conscientious in laying it out, and Denk never faltered in urging the argument upon us. In terms all its own, the four-movement work, lasting 35-40 minutes generally (I didn't time this one), makes the rhetorical case for Schubert's art as well as anything he wrote.

Basically, this sonata puts an eloquent spin on the ancient dictum: Art is long (ethos), life is short (pathos). No one could have stated that with more poignant majesty than Denk did via Schubert on a pleasant spring afternoon in Carmel.