leave a comment

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.


    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, 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

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

View Notes

Schumann epitomized the spirit of the Romantic era in his affinity for small-scale musical forms, his reliance on extramusical sources of inspiration, and the paramount value he placed on emotional freedom and spontaneity. Although he wrote four symphonies, several concertos, and even a lone opera, his impulsive genius found its most characteristic expression in solo piano music and art songs. Schumann was an inveterate improviser at the keyboard, as one might suppose from the rhapsodic fluidity that characterizes his piano writing. In fact, only a chronic hand injury prevented him from realizing his youthful ambition to be a concert pianist. Instead, he dedicated himself to creating a new kind of music for the piano, compounded of heroic virtuosity and poetic intimacy.

In the seven years before his marriage to the pianist Clara Wieck in 1840, Schumann wrote some of his most beloved piano works, including Carnaval, Kreisleriana, Kinderszenen, the C-Major Fantasy, and the first version of the Symphonic Etudes. Although Clara was the muse behind most of these masterpieces, the composer was secretly engaged to another woman when he began work on the Symphonic Etudes in 1834. Schumann met and fell in love with 18-year-old Ernestine von Fricken in Leipzig, where they were both piano students of Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck. Ernestine, the adopted daughter of an Austrian nobleman, had already put in an appearance in Carnaval, masquerading as the passionate, darkly alluring “Estrella.” Moreover, the 21 vignettes that comprise Schumann’s musical masked ball are linked by different versions of the four-note motto A-S-C-H (A, E-flat, C, and B in German notation), a cryptic allusion to Ernestine’s hometown in Bohemia.

In 1834, Baron Ignaz Ferdinand von Fricken, an amateur flutist and composer, asked his prospective son-in-law to critique a set of variations he had written on an original theme. No doubt choosing his words with care, Schumann responded that the melody possessed “character and good feeling.” But that was as far as he was willing to go in the interest of ingratiating himself with his fiancée’s family. “As to the variations themselves,” he went on, “I must bring a charge against you, which the modern school is rather fond of making, namely, that they are too much alike in character. No doubt the theme ought always to be kept well in view, but it ought to be shown through different colored glasses, just as there are windows of various colors which make the country look rosy like the setting sun, or as golden as a summer morning, etc.”

 As if to demonstrate how to do the job properly, Schumann proceeded to borrow the Baron’s theme for his own set of variations, which he proposed to call Fantasies et Finale sur un Thême de M. le Baron de Fricken (Fantasies and Finale on a Theme by Baron von Fricken) and dedicate to Ernestine’s mother. Shortly thereafter, he discovered that Ernestine had been born out of wedlock and was therefore unlikely to inherit her father’s fortune. Whether for that or some other reason, Schumann broke off their engagement in the summer of 1835. When the 12 Études symphoniques (Symphonic Etudes) was published two years later, Fricken’s theme had been reattributed to an anonymous “amateur” and several of the original variations had been jettisoned. (Published separately in 1873, the five “posthumous variations” are sometimes incorporated in modern performances.) Schumann was in the concert hall that August when his new sweetheart, Clara, performed three of the etudes in Leipzig. “The way you played my Etudes—I won’t ever forget that,” he wrote ecstatically; “they were absolute masterpieces the way you presented them—the public can’t appreciate such playing—but one person was sitting there, no matter how much his heart was pounding with other feelings, my entire being at that instant bowed down before you as an artist.”

The long, complicated gestation of the Symphonic Etudes lasted another 15 years, as the dissatisfied composer continued to tinker with his creation. At one point Schumann became so frustrated by the work’s lackluster reception that he exclaimed to Clara: “That sort of thing is not suited for the general public, and it would be very weak to make a moan afterwards, and say that they had not understood a thing which was not written to suit their taste, but merely for its own sake.” It was the critical and commercial success of Schumann’s Album for the Young in 1848 that prompted his publisher to propose a new edition of the Symphonic Etudes. Schumann seized the opportunity to prune and simplify the score, without changing its fundamentally virtuosic character. The revised edition was published in 1852, this time titled Études en forme de variations (Etudes in the Form of Variations). Not until 1861—five years after Schumann’s death—did Brahms’ friend Adolf Schubring compile the variorum edition that is the basis for most performances today.

In all of its sundry permutations, the Symphonic Etudes mirrors the characters of Schumann’s fictitious literary alter egos—the stormy, impulsive Florestan and the dreamy, reflective Eusebius. The latter's spirit prevails in the opening Thema; Schumann said he tried to transform the wistful C-sharp-minor theme from a funeral march into a triumphal march, but in the end he couldn't “escape the minor mode.” In the first etude, a crisp, martial-sounding melody wells up from the depths of the keyboard and flowers in a profusion of imitative entries. The intensity of the second etude, with its passionately throbbing triplets, gives way to quicksilver brilliance in the arpeggiated staccato figures of the third, and to contrapuntal ingenuity in the canonic textures of the fourth. Thereafter Schumann keeps the two sides of his artistic persona in balance, alternating displays of strenuous virtuosity with gauzy textures and dreamlike moods. Florestan has the last word in the massive orchestral sonorities of the Finale, which returns “home” to D-flat major, the enharmonic equivalent of C-sharp.

Program Subject to Change Without Notice