Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Denk Think: Some Thoughts about the Elusive Interpretation of the Transcendent

Jeremy Denk will be playing a recital in Carnegie Hall on Friday. More importantly, for those of us in Central Pennsylvania, he’ll be playing the same program for Market Square Concerts at Whitaker Center on Wednesday at 8pm.

Frankly, I’d go even if he were just live-blogging, but he’s playing a prelude and fugue by Bach, four works by Franz Liszt, the Bartók Piano Sonata (which I haven’t heard live since my grad school days) and Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the C Minor Sonata, Op. 111, which I’d heard Denk play at Gretna Music some summers ago.

He’s also just recorded the Beethoven for Nonesuch, paired with two books of etudes by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti (better known in this country to a certain generation of movie-goers who might recall two of his works used in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). With any luck, there will be enough CDs for sale in the lobby – from what I’ve heard of it, it’s a keeper, even for the Beethoven alone.

(You can read Ellen Hughes' article about Denk's performance as well as an appearance in Central PA with another giant of the keyboard, Emanuel Ax, here.)

Now, one usually evaluates a performer on their performance – that seems to be what it’s all about – and how they communicate the music to you, the listener. But putting a program (or a recording) together can be a daunting challenge and sometimes it feels like a slap-dash program of this and that that’s thrown together to meet certain expectations can often lead to a slap-dash performance that, individually, might prove very entertaining or even meaningful but often can fall a little short on the whole.

But a thoughtful performer – especially one who wants to get something out of the performance himself – puts a lot of thought into a program and one thing Jeremy Denk is noted for is his intelligent approach to his programming as well as to his performances.

The idea of a performer being labeled “intelligent,” however, may prove off-putting or intimidating to someone who’s out to be entertained – “I could’ve stayed home and watched reruns of Dancing with the Stars instead!” – but there is so much music out there that is beyond its mere entertainment value, it’s good to have someone you can trust it to, a mind that’s willing to get underneath the surface and come to terms with the essence of the music (that indefinable otherness that makes it so difficult to describe and explain why it’s so great). Otherwise, we’d sit there and wait for the big tunes or marvel at how fast the fingers can move.

There are several interviews with Jeremy Denk available on YouTube – this one, a New York City Arts profile, is as good as any:

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Or this one, from a series courtesy of NPR, in which he describes the music he’s playing – how the composer works, how he’s taking it apart before putting it back together for you, rather than just playing the notes on the page: here’s a bit on the Aria that forms the basis of the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach:

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Most people would listen to the tune in the right hand – after all, that’s what’s most “obvious,” isn’t it? But that isn’t what Bach is doing in the course of this monumental piece: the theme itself is built on an even simpler harmonic bass-line (the lowest notes of the left hand) which, according to standard practice, Bach expands to create in itself a satisfying progression of implied chords which then support the melody we’re enjoying so much.

This is why some people have problems realizing the organic unity of these variations: what’s being varied, the generating material for all this music, is not the most obvious thing we hear but what supplies the foundation that, whether we hear it or not, keeps such a vast piece of music from falling into 30 episodes in the life of a pianist.

While the program had changed from its initial appearance in our brochures – sometimes I understand why the promotion doesn’t include what they’ll be playing because that’ll probably change anyway – the way it stands now (barring any unforeseen tweakings or outright alterations) combines works in a comparative logic and I mean by that the chance to compare, for instance, the last of Bach’s Preludes & Fugues from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier with the last of Beethoven’s sonatas, or works by Liszt, one of the greatest pianists of the 19th Century, inspired by the great Italian poets of the 14th Century in between a prelude inspired by a Bach cantata (Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen – Weeping, Lamenting, Worrying, Fearing) and a transcription capturing one of the most transcendent moments from any of his friend (and son-in-law) Richard Wagner’s operas, what we know as “Isolde’s Liebestod” from the opera Tristan & Isolde.

Missing from the rather daunting set of Liszt pieces is the “virtuosic” Liszt, our typical perception of him as a 19th Century Rock Star, all flash and dash who was all about Entertainment. But this follows a work by Béla Bartók, another Hungarian composer who is better known for his use of folk music, just as Franz Liszt had captured Europe’s imagination with his Hungarian Rhapsodies. Unfortunately, these had nothing to do with folk music but most people assumed they were Hungarian folk music: actually they were inspired by the urban popular music of the Gypsies when people (including Brahms) used to hang out in Vienna’s smokier taverns to listen to their favorite gypsy bands the way people (including Elliott Carter) in more recent times would hang out in clubs to listen to their favorite jazz bands.

But Bartók’s infrequently heard Piano Sonata, while owing much of its musical language to his Hungarian roots, also marks a change in his own under-the-surface language. While he’s not quoting actual folk music as it may seem to a non-Hungarian, he has taken the essence of it to create his own “imaginary folk music” (I’m not sure if the phrase belongs to the composer who was notoriously tight-lipped about his compositional approach, or a well-meaning biographer but the idea is apt enough for our purposes) which looks back in one sense to Liszt’s virtuosity as it looks ahead to what we might hear today in Ligeti’s Etudes. It does make one wonder if there isn’t some national genetic marker in these composers’ musical fingerprints beyond the role of mere influence.

There’s also another aspect of Bartók that might not come to mind easily and that is the role of Bach – not so much his magisterial contrapuntal style but the transformation, perhaps, of the sheer joy one hears in the gigues that end Bach’s keyboard suites which might have toes tapping and heads bopping before one realizes, “hey, this is a fugue!” There’s a contrapuntal sense, a certain left-braininess in Bartók’s finale, aside from all the foot-stomping, drum-pounding clusters in the background, that gives the work its dynamic rhythmic excitement, one that might not be so far removed from Bach’s sense of gaiety, not that I would call it “Bachianas hungarieras.” But the contrast with Bach-inspired Liszt to follow may be less obvious than you’d think.

Of course, the program has to end with Beethoven’s last sonata because where else would you put it on a recital? After that ending – one of the most transcendent in all of music, as far as I’m concerned – no more music is really necessary (damn, I was hoping for an encore).

When Denk played Op. 111 at Gretna, paired with Charles Ives transcendental “Emerson” Sonata, I was doing the pre-concert talk. There is so much to say about Beethoven’s C Minor Sonata but instead I chose to read an excerpt about the work from a famous novel that examines the depths of creativity and genius, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. This was from Chapter 8, when the music teacher Wendell Kretzschmar (who hails, fictionally, from Pennsylvania) is giving a lecture about Beethoven’s Sonata, specifically why there’s no 3rd movement. I can’t quote it all, here – it’s very extensive and there are copyright laws to be broken if I do – but I highly recommend it, especially in John E. Woods recent translation.

It is the moment when the young composer who’s the focus of the story is awakened to the power of music to connect over time and generations, between creator and listener.

(It seems only fair to bring Thomas Mann into the discussion since, Petrarch and Dante aside, as you can see in the video recorded in Denk's apartment, his walls are covered with bookshelves and he can toss off a reference to Proust, not trying to sound pretentious, with the best of them. By the way, if you’ve already discovered Proust, might I recommend Robert Musil’s novel, The Man Without Qualities?)

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There are, of course, many ways to play these pieces. Someone who is not a trained musician (and too many who are) might think everything is there on the printed page with all the notes and directions the composer gives us. How, then, can one performer play it differently than another if it’s all the same?

That’s just it – it’s not all the same, and even one pianist will admit that, depending on any number of variables – whether or not you’ve had your favorite brand of coffee that morning; how the spring-like weather of Central Pennsylvania might affect you; the fact you’re performing in a place like Carnegie Hall with all its history and historical and professional baggage (practice, baby, practice) – that can create subtle differences from one performance to the next, hitting the notes aside (in itself, enough of a challenge). A “different” piece? Well, not obviously but intrinsically – and how well, in the long run, it reaches and affects the listener, this mysterious communication of the composer’s idea distilled through the performer’s idea to reach the audience’s idea.

The Beethoven is one of those works that an artist or listener can keep coming back to and discovering new and different things in it, for lack of a less specific term. The first movement is a fairly standard “sonata form” by Beethoven’s approach. There’s a slow searching introduction leading to a dynamic, dramatic first theme (or germ of a theme that keeps on spinning) and what seems like a second theme but never really turns into one – it’s a contrast in a major key with a different mood before we’re thrown back into the dramatic struggle of the first theme. There’s a not unexpected development section – with a lot of fugal writing (as Beethoven was fond of in his later works – his last three sonatas were written simultaneously with the massive Missa Solemnis and the Grosse Fuge of Op.133 was not long into the future) – and a not unexpected recapitulation before the drama seems to collapse rather than resolve.

The second movement – much longer – is a complete contrast and, like the Goldberg Variations, is based on a simple theme which Beethoven labels Arietta as opposed to Bach’s Aria. The variations evolve melodically and, as you’d expect, become more complex, bringing in an element of syncopation atypical for Beethoven’s contemporaries. Suddenly, it erupts in what is often referred to as the “ragtime” or “boogie-woogie” variation – generations before such a style existed and which is only an inaccurate after-the-fact descriptor – that, after incredible intensity, turns into a series of expansive meditations, complete with elongated trills, on a short motive which Mann’s Kretzschmar refers to as his “fare-thee-well” motive.

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“After all its ordeals, the motive, this D-G-G, undergoes a gentle transformation. As it takes its farewell and becomes in and of itself a farewell, a call and a wave of goodbye, it experiences a little melodic enhancement. After an initial C, it takes on a C-sharp before the D, so that it now no longer scans as ‘sky of blue’ or ‘meadow-land’ but as ‘O – thou sky of blue,’ ‘greenest meadow-land,’ ‘fare-thee-well for good;’ and this added C-sharp is the most touching, comforting, poignantly forgiving act in the world. It is like a painfully loving caress of the hair, the cheek – a silent, deep gaze into the eyes for one last time. It blesses its object, its dreadful journeys now past, with overwhelming humanization, lays it on the hearer’s heart as a farewell, forever, lays it so gently that tears well. ‘Now for-get the pain!’ it says. ‘God was – great in us.’ ‘All was – but a dream.’ ‘Hold my – memory dear.’ Then it breaks off. Fast, hard triplets scurry toward a convenient final phrase that could easily conclude many another piece.”
(– Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, translated by John E. Woods, Knopf NYC 1997.)
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Here is a performance of the complete Sonata, Op. 111 by Beethoven, with Jeremy Denk recorded live at GreenSpace during a Beethoven marathon:

The discussion “why there is no 3rd movement,” the expected finale after this slow movement’s set of variations, is unnecessary after you hear it. Beethoven essentially combines elements of both slow movement and finale (even a scherzo in those ‘ragtime’ moments) that anything further is pointless. When his friend and secretary Anton Schindler asked why he didn’t write a third movement, Beethoven may have been joking (as he often did) that he had no time to write one; perhaps it was only after he was done, he too realized he’d already said all he needed to say on the matter.

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As if to prove a point that no music is necessary after Beethoven’s Op. 111, I will now add something about the work that opens the program – the Bartók Piano Sonata.

Here are two different performances by entirely different performers of the opening movement of Bartók’s sonata dating from 1926. The first is the ebullient Lang Lang who is clearly enjoying himself and whose performance is guaranteed to bring down the house:
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Now, here is a second performance (also recorded live) with a pianist I first heard when we were both grad students at Eastman and whom I found courtesy of YouTube purely by accident: here is Mark Westcott’s take on the same music:

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Quite a difference, no? The first, of course, is more exciting, focusing on the sheer physicality of performing the music. Most people would stand up and cheer because it is, after all, faster and louder than the second performance. These same people would not even consider this the least bit vulgar because it pushes all the right buttons – if you’re watching American Idol.

For some, Westcott’s performance may seem by comparison “too elegant” if that’s possible but I point out that the composer’s own tempo indication is Allegro moderato – in other words, a moderately lively tempo, not “prestissimo vulgarando.”

And yet the notes are the same. Please explain…

Dick Strawser

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