Giorgio Koukl | 01 FEB 2021
Recently I had the opportunity to follow different video streamings of pianist Jeremy Denk. The first one was made in his New York apartment and displayed a selection of a few preludes and fugues from The Well Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach, initially streamed by the Schwartz Center Virtual Stage in Atlanta, Georgia, on Friday, January 29
The most interesting part was not the music in itself but the possibility to follow the mental 6process of the pianist while building the single phrases, mainly in his right hand. The occasion to enter this usually unknown “secret kitchen” of a performer was surely a unique one.
Denk explains extensively his own way of thinking, doing and pondering the tiniest details, literally building a dialogue with two notes only, which can assume very different results with only the two ingredients a pianist has on his disposition: time and force. An interpreter creates the beauty of a musical phrase playing two notes in a more or less quick succession and making both sound equally forte or piano, or maybe exercising the possibility of a tiny crescendo or diminuendo.
One has to think this over: with this poor technical means all interpretative skills are built and there is nothing else. Other instrumentists can change the color and texture of a sound intervening successively once a sound starts, using a vibrato or a change of color, a thing impossible to do on a piano. Here, when a key is pressed no other options are available than to hold it or release it, knowing that a natural decay of the sound will happen. Yet an illusion of a singing voice should be created for the audience.
Denk is a master in this art. His way of exploring all the small variables before deciding which one suits him best is astonishing.
There are logically also some dangers in this process. One can concentrate so much on a few notes’ passage that the overall picture gets lost. The playfulness of an improvised way to make music can get lost. One other aspect has to be considered, too. In art the power of “casually happened” should not be underestimated.
There are things which will be never created while pondering. If an artist feels that under his hands something starts to blossom, a phrase is born, then this will rarely happen out of thinking but usually quite spontaneously. This spontaneity is at risk when too much thinking is involved. Then the danger of having a musician heroically solving one problem after another, but delivering music which is boring to the audience, is very great.
Some other factors are in play, too.
The sound of a piano is fixed with a single instrument a musician has at his disposition. The pianists do not play historical instruments like the string players. There are no Stradivari pianos. All instruments are industrial products. There might be a particularly blessed Steinway grand, born in Hamburg under a lucky star, which sounds like a heavenly dream, or a terrible nightmare of a heavy no-name instrument that’s badly tuned and serviced. On both a pianist have to adjust his technique . In this case it would be interesting to see how much Mr. Denk’s way of procedure could still stay in place.
The acoustic of a hall plays an equally important role. A single, well prepared solution must be forcedly played in a different way when only an extremely dry concert hall is available. Recording the sound adds just an extra layer to the problem.
In the second video I followed a master class of Mr. Denk. Here it was possible to follow the enormous difficulties his students had while trying again and again to apply the instructions of their teacher. This method probably works well when rehearsed for a long time, when it becomes a second nature but surely not at a first try.
Finally I followed a private studio recording from WGBH’s Fraser Studio, Boston, Massachusett,s played by Denk which included following pieces: Robert Schumann, Papillons Op. 2; Clara Schumann, Romances, Op. 21; Missy Mazzoli, Bolts of Loving Thunder and Johannes Brahms, Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 119.
I concentrated on Missy Mazzoli’s work only, eager to listen to some 20th century music under the Denk’s fingers.
Well, first of all the compositional structure of this work has only few links with the music of our time, being quite romantic and simple. It is very effective for pianists, a pièce de rèsistance as played by the artist. I admired much his technique, put on highest test in the cross hands sections. I could equally imagine a completely different rendering of this music, much more metallic, intentionally non-romantic, cold and emotionless. ■