Jeremy Denk: c1300-c2000
As ambitious recording projects go, this one must rank pretty high: so high, in fact, that it may be thought to have passed into the zone marked ‘futile’.
When asked by New York’s Lincoln Center to prepare a concert for their 2016 White Light Festival, the American pianist Jeremy Denk decided to squeeze the history of Western music (and not just piano music) into the required 80 minutes (actually a little over – hence the two discs). There is plenty of lovely piano-playing here, from a fleet-footed Bach Chromatic Fantasy to an architecturally conceived Isolde’s Liebestod, which is my personal highlight. The choices of repertoire on the second disc are never less than thought-provoking. The transition from Wagner to Brahms’s Intermezzo, Op 119 No 1, is surprisingly seamless, and from there to Schoenberg’s Op 11 No 1 illuminating. And although the piano sound will surely be too bright and the touch too heavy for some ears in the Romantic repertoire, in particular Schumann’s ‘In der Nacht’, it definitely suits Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ligeti and Stockhausen.
Yet the conceptual flaws of the project remain glaring, however much explanation and ‘disclaimer’ Denk has put in his booklet notes. Almost the entire first disc makes little sense as Denk seeks to convey the essence of Machaut, Binchois and others through simply direct transcription on to the piano. He does so well enough in pianistic terms. But shorn of words and timbral variety the result sounds little better than clever monochrome doodling, or like professorial musical illustrations from the days when no proper live performances or recordings of the repertoire were available. (The Binchois is repeated at the end, because Denk fondly imagines that it is somehow charged with new meaning.)
Admittedly, Denk’s essay pre-empts the obvious reaction: that he is merely offering a set of illustrations for a glorified Music Appreciation 101 course. But to anticipate criticism is not to disarm it. And that’s even before we get into the objections of having the history of classical music told via a few works by a few great white men. He says that his aim is to tell a story rather than to be didactic; either way he falls short.
When Denk admits that ‘I’m sure every listener will be outraged by some omission or other’, he is on the mark. Just the first movement of Beethoven’s Op 111? No comment. And to offer this and the slow movement of Mozart’s C major Sonata (the one he himself designated ‘for beginners’) as somehow representative of the Classical era is like introducing a person by revealing their left earlobe. If this is a kind of musical time-travel experience, as one sympathetic review of the Lincoln Center event put it, then I’m the child in the back asking ‘Are we there yet?’