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Recipient of a 2013 MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship and one of America's foremost pianists, Jeremy Denk is known throughout the world for his ebullient virtuosity and thoughtful musicianship. Denk possesses an intellectual curiosity that shines through in this expertly crafted program.

“A pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs…” —The New York Times

Please note that this concert will take place at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.  Learn more here.

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    Jeremy Denk

    Jeremy Denk is one of America’s foremost pianists – an artist The New York Times hails as someone "you want to hear no matter what he performs." Winner of a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award.

    In 2016-17, Denk embarks on a recital tour of the UK, including a return to Wigmore Hall, and he will make his debut at the Philharmonie in Cologne. He appears on tour throughout the US, including Chicago Symphony Hall and Lincoln Center's White Light Festival.  He will release a solo recording, The Classical Style, and joins his long-time musical partners, Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis in a recording of Brahms' Trio in B-major.

    Denk’s 2015-16 engagements included a fourteen-city recital tour of the U.S., and culminated in his return to Carnegie Hall; while in the UK, he appeared in solo recital and on tour with the Britten Sinfonia. He also returned to the San Diego and Detroit Symphonies with Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, and continued as Artistic Partner of The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

    Jeremy Denk lives in New York City, and his web site and blog are at jeremydenk.net.

    “Jeremy Denk was the pyrogenic force in every piece he played. He commands a huge range of colors and dynamics…” –The Boston Globe


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Rondo in A minor, K. 511

View Notes

In the late 1780s, Mozart was the toast of Vienna, equally celebrated as a virtuoso pianist and as a composer. Having discovered that the Viennese were willing to pay handsomely for the privilege of attending his popular subscription concerts, he worked day and night to keep the programs stocked with a fresh supply of concertos, sonatas, fugues, and various other stand-alone pieces. Wolfgang’s boundless energy and nonstop activity made a deep impression on his father when the latter visited the Austrian capital in 1785. “It is impossible to describe the trouble and the commotion,” Leopold Mozart wrote to his daughter in Salzburg. “Since my arrival your brother's fortepiano has been taken at least a dozen times to the theater or to some other house.” For his part, the composer half-jokingly complained that “the whole morning is taken up with pupils and almost every evening I have to play. Well, haven’t I enough to do?” 

Composed in 1787, Mozart’s K. 511 illustrates his determination to expand the range of piano technique and expression even while breathing new life into forms and genres associated with his Baroque predecessors—in this case, the rondo, in which a recurring theme alternates with music of a contrasting character. Soon after moving to Vienna from Salzburg in 1781, Mozart had begun attending concerts of “early music” at the home of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, head of the Imperial Library and a pioneering music antiquarian. According to one of Mozart’s pupils, he became an avid student of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the score of which “was always lying open on his pianoforte.” Mozart told his father that he was collecting “the fugues of Bach—not only of Sebastian, but also of Emanuel and Friedemann.” Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the most famous of Johann Sebastian’s musical sons, blended his father’s contrapuntal skill with the finely nuanced introspection and expressive range of the newer empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style). The author of an influential treatise on "the true way of playing the keyboard," the younger Bach was renowned for the delicacy and precision of his touch.

The intense passions that C.P.E. Bach unleashed in many of his works are echoed in Mozart’s A-minor Rondo, one of his most profoundly emotional creations. Like C.P.E. Bach’s Rondo in C minor, Mozart’s K. 511 starts out in the minor mode and ranges freely over a broad expanse of harmonic and expressive terrain. The mournful A-minor theme is in lilting 6/8 meter, with a steady eighth-note pulse. Billowing sixteenth notes in the right hand introduce the first of two contrasting episodes, this one in F major. A series of chromatic scales, first descending, then rising, brings back the main rondo theme. It is interrupted in turn by the second episode, in A major, characterized by running sixteenth-note triplets. Mozart masterfully weaves these various elements together in the concluding statement of the theme.

—Harry Haskell, © 2017

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Visions fugitives, Op. 22

View Notes

Known for his steely-fingered precision and refinement at the keyboard, Prokofiev wrote some of the twentieth century’s most brilliant and percussive keyboard music. As both composer and pianist, he cultivated a sharply etched, ironic, and occasionally acerbic style that propelled him to the forefront of the modernist movement in the years before and during World War I. The composer Vladimir Dukelsky (the future Vernon Duke of popular-song fame) described Prokofiev’s pianism as “nothing but unrelenting energy and athletic joy of living.” Yet, in his lyrical moments, Prokofiev was equally capable of childlike directness and simplicity. The combination of brashness and restraint, of traditional and avant-garde elements—as displayed in the suite of charmingly epigrammatic miniatures known as Visions fugitives—helps explain the wide appeal of Prokofiev’s music.

Composed between 1915 and 1917, the twenty Visions fugitives owe their title to the Russian symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, who attended a private performance of the work that Prokofiev gave in the summer of 1917. “I do not know wisdom,” Balmont wrote, “leave that to others—I only turn fugitive visions into verse.” Something of a political naïf, Prokofiev mostly stayed aloof from the revolutionary fervor that played itself out daily in the streets of Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been renamed at the outset of World War I). In his diary he expressed irritation at the proletarian masses who milled about “in such a monstrously aimless manner” while the tsar’s troops fired on them from rooftops. Holed up in his apartment, the composer devoted himself to recording his musical “visions,” which are by turns playful and poetic, wistful and sarcastic.

Unlike Prokofiev’s nine ferociously difficult piano sonatas, most of these exquisitely crafted pieces are delicate, almost impressionistic creations that demand more finesse than virtuosity of the performer. Not surprisingly, the Visions fugitives proved so popular with audiences in the West that he often played them as encore pieces on his recitals. The simple, repetitive melodic and rhythmic patterns that serve as Prokofiev’s basic building blocks are laced with pungent dissonances, chromaticisms, and “wrong-note” harmonies. Yet, even at its most bombastic, Prokofiev’s music never loses its essential lyricism. Each piece revolves around one or two basic ideas, and the set as a whole abounds in contrasts. The “fugitive visions” range in mood from the mysterious, ethereal textures of the Andante (no. 2) to the antic struts and swoops of Ridicolosamente (no. 10). The Debussyan reverie of Pittoresco (no. 7), with its delicate, harp-like rolled chords, contrasts with the clangorous, pounding accents of Inquieto (no. 15) and the muted, hypnotically oscillating eighth notes of Poetico (no. 17). In the last piece, the work circles back to its beginning, with a languid, almost otherworldly essay in triple time.  

—Harry Haskell, © 2017

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109

View Notes

In 1817 Beethoven received a six-octave Broadwood piano as a gift from the English manufacturer. Although he was probably too deaf to appreciate the instrument's expanded tonal and dynamic range, his keyboard music of the period—beginning with the mighty Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106 (to be performed on March 11th, see p. X), of 1817-18—reveals a similar expansion of musical boundaries. Like many of Beethoven's other late works, these sonatas juxtapose passages of great tenderness and lucidity with lacerating eruptions of raw energy and emotion. How, and how much, the composer's deafness affected his music and outlook on life is, to some degree, a matter of conjecture, but there is no mistaking the "inwardness" of these extraordinary works, with their radical discontinuities, far-flung tonal relationships, and bold reconfigurations of musical time and space.

Commissioned by the Berlin publisher Adolph Martin Schlesinger, the last three of Beethoven's thirty-two piano sonatas were composed between 1820 and late 1822, the period in which he was struggling to bring the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony to fruition. In these path-breaking sonatas, one often has the sense that the composer is not hearing but feeling his way from one idea to the next, the notes forming themselves soundlessly under his fingers, detached from their auditory moorings. Improvising had always been a vital element in Beethoven's creative process, but it became even more so as deafness forced him to rely increasingly on his inner voice. "Real improvisation comes only when we are unconcerned [with] what we play," he said, "so—if we want to improvise in the best, truest manner in public—we should give ourselves over freely to what comes to mind."

At the beginning of the E-major Sonata, Op. 109, the staggering of the two hands creates a delicately pointillist effect, betraying the Vivace's origins as a stand-alone teaching piece. Vast expanses of the piano’s register soon open up in the first of the movement's two Adagio interludes. A hushed, coda-like reprise of the main theme flows directly into an explosive triple-time Prestissimo in E minor, which veers between extremes of motion and affect. Storm and fury give way, in the Sonata's third movement, to incandescent lyricism. "Songlike, with the greatest inwardness of feeling" is Beethoven's marking for the tender E -major theme, which unfolds in two eight-bar strains, each stated twice. This is followed by six contrasting variations: a slow, achingly poignant waltz; a vivacious scherzo; a short, Czerny-like exercise, full of spitfire runs; a lilting andante, to be played "a little slower than the theme"; a briskly contrapuntal version of the theme; and an extended tailpiece that plunges into a dense thicket of passagework and trills before emerging into the calm, clear air of the opening melody.   

—Harry Haskell, © 2017

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

An die ferne Geliebte (trans. Liszt)

View Notes

Much ink has been spilled in speculation about the identity of the anonymous “Immortal Beloved” (unsterbliche Geliebte) to whom the forty-one-year-old Beethoven wrote a passionate love letter in 1812. Most scholars believe that she was a young Viennese noblewoman named Antonie Brentano, whom the composer had met two years earlier. Addressing her as “my angel, my all, my self,” Beethoven pledged to “wander about in the distance, until I can fly into your arms, and can call myself entirely at home with you, can send my soul embraced by you into the realm of spirits.” Brentano, trapped in an unhappy marriage with a kindly but stolid Frankfurt businessman, was susceptible to the great man’s attentions, and although their relationship apparently remained platonic—Beethoven took a dim view of extramarital affairs, but was clearly attracted to woman who were already “taken”—her subsequent description of him as “a great, excellent person” with a “soft heart” and a “glowing soul” suggests that his feelings did not go unrequited.

Judging from comments he let drop to friends, Beethoven was still smitten with Brentano when he composed his song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) four years later. The inference that he wrote it with Brentano in mind is supported by the fact that he had earlier presented her with a love song titled “An die Geliebte.” In any case, Beethoven’s music leaves no doubt of the tenderness of his emotions. Set to six lyrics by an otherwise obscure medical student named Alois Jeitteles, An die ferne Geliebte evokes the pain of lovers’ separation in a series of simple, folk-like tunes that flow into each other without breaks, giving the impression of a single, unified utterance. As such, this work is the acknowledged prototype of the thematically integrated song cycles that Schubert, Schumann, and other composers would soon create.  

In lovingly transcribing Beethoven’s work for solo piano in 1849, Franz Liszt eschewed the bravura pyrotechnics that characterize his freewheeling “paraphrases” of operatic arias. On the contrary, his watchwords for this work were restraint and intimacy. The result is remarkably faithful to both the letter and the spirit of An die ferne Geliebte. Liszt not only honors Beethoven’s carefully balanced tonal scheme, beginning and ending with the same E-flat-major melody; he preserves the regular phrase structure of the original strophic songs, along with such picturesque piano effects as the burbling triplets of the third song and the warbling birdcalls of the fourth. Not for nothing did a contemporary critic compare Liszt to one of the great Italian tenors of the day: “The soft whisperings of his piano passages seemed to compete with the tones of Rubini’s voice, and the showers of light notes which he scattered through some of the variations realized every idea that can be formed of fairy music.”  

—Harry Haskell, © 2017

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17

View Notes

In the seven years before his marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840, Schumann wrote some of his greatest piano works, including the first and second sonatas, Kreisleriana, Kinderszenen, and the C-major Fantasie. Schumann was infatuated with the budding pianist and composer, ten years his junior; her father’s implacable opposition to the match had the predictable result of driving them into each other's arms. Nevertheless, living in different cities—Robert in Leipzig, Clara in Vienna—the young lovers were forced to conduct their clandestine courtship via letters and musical valentines. Schumann declared that his Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11, was “a cry from my heart to yours.” In deference to Mr. Wieck’s feelings, however, he masked his identity on the title page under the names of his fictitious alter egos, the stormy, impulsive Florestan and the dreamy, ruminative Eusebius. 

The lines by the echt-Romantic philosopher and poet Friedrich Schlegel that Schumann attached to the Fantasie as an epigraph were clearly meant for Clara’s eyes: “Through all the tones in Earth’s many-colored dream, a quietly drawn-out tone sounds for one who listens secretly.” The core of the work consisted of a single movement titled “Ruins, doubtless reflecting the lovesick composer’s despondency. Schumann later expanded it into a memorial triptych to Beethoven with the addition of panels labeled “Trophies” and “Palms.” By early 1838, however, he had reverted to his original conception, telling Clara that “the first movement is probably the most passionate I have ever written—a deep lamentation for you.” For her part, Clara was especially taken with the second movement, in which she heard “an entire orchestra.” By the time the Fantasie was published in 1839, she was on the verge of defying her father and openly declaring her love.

Schumann was an inveterate improviser at the keyboard, as one might suppose from the rhapsodic fluidity that characterizes his piano writing. “In fact, his youthful ambition was to be a concert pianist, thwarted by a chronic hand injury.” Instead, Schumann dedicated himself to creating a new kind of music for the piano, compounded of heroic virtuosity and poetic intimacy. Florestan takes center stage at the outset of the Fantasie as a broad, majestic melody soars above rippling sixteenth notes. But the gentle spirit of Eusebius dominates the first movement’s prayer-like middle section and the tender Adagio at the end, in which Schumann quotes a poignant snatch of melody from the song cycle Beethoven wrote to his own “distant beloved.” The second movement is a crisply energetic march pulsing with rhythmic vitality; the boldly annunciatory main theme returns several times in different guises. The finale owes its mood of reverie to Schumann’s searching harmonies and his characteristic technique of embedding the melody in a rich skein of figuration. 

—Harry Haskell, © 2017

Program Subject to Change Without Notice