Denk, Schumann, and Ives: so happy together

Jeremy Denk is no stranger to a Seattle audience. For more than ten years he has been one of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s regular pianists. In the summer, you could find Denk at the Lakeside School, and in the winter, Nordstrom Recital Hall. Local music lovers also know Denk from his long association with the violinist Joshua Bell. In fact, Bell and Denk last performed in Seattle in February.

Followers of Denk’s career commend his fearlessness regarding repertory and an authentic, intellectual approach to playing that is as much for him as it is for the audience. Though Denk is familiar to Seattle audiences, one might be surprised to know that the pianist only made his local recital debut on March 31st of this year, as part of the President’s Piano Series at the University of Washington.

Denk crafted his debut with a program that included Bach and Chopin. Bach’s Tocatta BWV 912 and Chopin’s Op. 61 Polonaise were, given serious, introspective readings that had me wondering why we don’t hear these pieces played more often with same focused intensity. But, these pieces were secondary to the rest of the program — Charles Ives’ First Piano Sonata and Richard Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze, Op. 6.

Ives’ sonata and Schumann’s Op. 6 on their face do not seem suited to the same program. But both pieces are connected in the questions the composers ask and the answers they find (or don’t find).

Always eager to supplement (or correct) to the recital’s program notes, Denk explained that Schumann wrote the 18 dances of the Op. 6 after he successfully proposed marriage to Clara Wieck. Clara’s affirmative response inspired him to quickly compose the dances as a celebration. The period immediately following his engagement and marriage continued to be productive. Schumann composed numerous songs, chamber works (including the famous piano quartet), and orchestral music. Clara’s influence is found throughout the pieces Schumann created during this period. From the lieder to the piano concerto, Clara’s sway over her new husband is found in nearly every piece Schumann composed during this period. Over the course of his life, Schumann would continue to draw on his wife for inspiration and support, and she reciprocated with unparalleled devotion. Years later, when a maddened Schumann flung himself into the Rhine, it was Clara (and Johannes Brahms) who tried to help him regain his sanity.

The Davidsbundlertanze might mark the joyous beginning of Robert and Clara Schumann’s creative union, but the piece hints at troubles ahead for Robert. Schumann appointed a different muse for each of the 18 movements, (Florestan and Eusebius) which gives the piece a split personality. On the one hand, Florestan’s dances convey party-like revelry. In contrast, Eusebius’ seem to embody the buttoned up romance of Robert and Clara before they became engaged. Is this the beginning of the end for Schumann’s grip on sanity? Would a different answer from Clara have meant a different Robert? We’ll never know. Denk shifted between Schumann’s varying moods easily. He skillfully let slower, lyrical dances breathe, and pushed others with the frenetic energy you’d expect to find at a club.

Earlier that evening, Denk explored another work replete with contrasts — the Ives First Piano Sonata. This work matches the evolving temperment of Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze. Ives’ sonata is set in five distinct movements, and Denk took microphone in hand to guide the audience through the mood of each. He advised the Meany Hall audience to picture a rowdy pub when thinking about the second and fourth movements. By contrast, the first, third, and fifth movements are restrained, bread for the meat laden second and fourth movements. Denk took great care to emphasize that Ives manipulated popular hymns in the for the odd-numbered movements, and even played portions of those hymns so the audience could later try to decipher the melodies from Ives’ works.

All five movements operate in a question and answer pattern. The first weaves two popular hymns together (“Where Is My Wandering Boy?” and “Lebanon”) as the question, along with an answering counter melody. In the context of the entire piece, the first movement might actually be asking, “Where is my wandering boy?” “The bar!” the second movement answers. Where the first movement sounds wanting, the second movement is hedonistic. Passages thrash about with feel of a sweaty bacchanal before collapsing into moments of pure serenity. The third movement follows the tenor of the first; the fourth movement the second. The sonata reaches its inquisitive apex with a three note “question of the universe” in the final movement. As the piece fades away, this listener was left with more questions than answers.

This is the third time I have heard Denk play Ives’ Sonata. The piece and his performance has gotten better each time. In Meany Hall, he was able to juxtapose the sonata’s enormous harmonies with delicate fragments in ways that were more appealing and frankly more exhilarating than the flatter acoustics of other venues. Reading through Mr. Denk’s blog (Think Denk) you can sense a touch of Ives’ own wry humor in the pianist’s writings. Maybe this is why Denk understands Ives’ music so well?

After Denk treated the audience to an encore, another Ives piece (“The Alcotts” from the Concord Sonata), I heard a patron gripe, “He certainly isn’t a Chopin player.” What this means, I still haven’t figured out. My best guess is that Denk didn’t play the Polonaise with the bland, facelessness we’ve come to expect from far too many pianists which elicits a perfunctory “that’s pretty” from sleepy audience members. Denk is a rare performer these days. He engages with his music, asks questions, and finds answers in each performance he gives. The results are never typical, never boring. I hope this audience member’s sentiments were an anomaly and Denk is promptly invited to perform in Seattle again.

A brief update…

As is often the case, I have been thinking a lot about the gentleman at the end of the recital last week and his comments aimed at Denk’s Chopin ability.  During one rumination, I remembered a blog post from Mr. Denk himself on the subject of Chopin.

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