Jeremy Denk is a nationally acclaimed pianist and winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship as well as the Avery Fisher Prize. Denk brings you a recital of music by Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, Scott Joplin, Tania León, and Frederic Rzewski, bookended by Mozart’s Sonata in C Minor and Beethoven’s final piano sonata, Op. 111.
“An artist you want to hear no matter what he performs.” — The New York Times
Jeremy Denk, piano
Mozart Piano Sonata in C Minor, K 457 Thomas “Blind Tom” WigginsThe Battle of Manassas Tania LeónRitual Joplin/ChauvinHeliotrope Bouquet Frederic RzewskiWinnsboro Cotton Mill Blues Beethoven Piano Sonata No 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
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Jeremy Denk is one of America’s foremost pianists. Winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and the Avery Fisher Prize, Denk was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Denk returns frequently to Carnegie Hall and in recent seasons has appeared with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Cleveland Orchestra, as well as on tour with Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms.
In 19–20, until the COVID-19 pandemic led to the shutdown of all performances, Denk toured Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier Book 1 extensively, and was to have performances culminate with Lincoln Center in New York and the Barbican in London. He returned to Carnegie Hall to perform Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with Orchestra St. Luke’s, and made his solo debut at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. He also made his solo recital debut at the Boulez Saal in Berlin performing works by Bach, Ligeti, Berg, and Schumann, and returned to the Piano aux Jacobins Festival in France, as well as London’s Wigmore Hall. Further performances abroad included his debut with the Bournemouth Symphony, his returns to the City of Birmingham Symphony, and the Piano Espoo Festival in Finland, and recitals of the complete Ives Violin Sonatas with Stefan Jackiw.
Highlights of the previous season, included a three-week recital tour, culminating in Denk’s return to Carnegie Hall; play-directing Mozart Concerti on an extensive tour with Academy of St Martin in the Fields; and nationwide trio tour with Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis. He also performed and curated a series of Mozart Violin Sonatas (‘Denk & Friends’) at Carnegie Hall.
Denk is also known for his original and insightful writing on music, which Alex Ross praises for its “arresting sensitivity and wit.” He wrote the libretto for a comic opera presented by Carnegie Hall, Cal Performances, and the Aspen Festival, and his writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, The Guardian, and on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. One of his New Yorker contributions, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” forms the basis of a book for future publication by Random House in the US, and Macmillan in the UK.
Denk’s recording of the Goldberg Variations for Nonesuch Records reached No. 1 on the Billboard Classical Charts. His recording of Beethoven’s, Op. 111 paired with Ligeti’s Études was named one of the best discs of the year by the New Yorker, NPR, and the Washington Post, and his account of the Beethoven sonata was selected by BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library as the best available version recorded on modern piano. Denk has a long-standing attachment to the music of American visionary Charles Ives, and his recording of Ives’s two piano sonatas also featured in many “best of the year” lists. His recording c.1300-c.2000 was released in 2018 with music ranging from Guillaume de Machaut, Gilles Binchois and Carlo Gesualdo, to Stockhausen, Ligeti and Glass.
Jeremy Denk graduated from Oberlin College, Indiana University, and the Juilliard School. He lives in New York City, and his web site and blog are at jeremydenk.net.
About the Music.
At a Glance
Jeremy Denk’s program is bracketed by a pair of sonatas in the “dark” key of C minor. Mozart’s K. 457 is distinguished by its agitated and often tragic atmosphere. Dating from the final decade of his life, the C-Minor Sonata reflects his determination to expand the range of piano technique and expression. The last of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas is a study in contrasts: the energetic first movement of Op. 111 leads to a tender Arietta, whose radiant ending Thomas Mann described (in his novel Doctor Faustus) as “the most moving, consolatory, pathetically reconciling thing in the world. It is like having one’s hair or cheek stroked, lovingly, understandingly, like a deep and silent farewell look.”
Between these monumental masterworks, Denk will play shorter pieces by four American composers representing diverse styles and backgrounds. Scott Joplin arrived in New York in 1907, a year before “Blind Tom” Wiggins died in nearby Hoboken, N.J. Joplin was the reigning “King of Ragtime,” while Wiggins had outlived his early celebrity, but both were instrumental in winning African-Americans a toehold in the world of classical music. Cuban-born Tania León launched her career in the 1960s with a string of works written for the Dance Theater of Harlem, and the kinetic impulse is as intrinsic to Rituál as the music’s up-to-date harmonic vocabulary. Frederic Rzewski is likewise known for his uncompromisingly modernist yet accessible piano works; the repetitive, mechanistic patterns of Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues are leavened with hints of ragtime and jazz.
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Piano Sonata in C Minor, K. 457 (1784)
By 1780, Mozart was growing increasingly restive in his position as court composer to Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo in his native Salzburg. The prelate’s insatiable demands, and his failure to appreciate Mozart’s accomplishments in the realm of secular music, impelled the ambitious tyro to search for greener pastures. One year later he severed his ties to the ecclesiastical court and moved to Vienna, where he spent the remaining decade of his life as a highly successful freelance composer, virtuoso pianist, and teacher. In addition to no fewer than 17 piano concertos, he wrote a wide variety of solo keyboard music, ranging from large-scale sonatas to rondos, fantasias, fugues, and other stand-alone pieces.
In October 1784, Mozart presented the dedication copy of the C-Minor Sonata to his favorite piano pupil, Maria Theresia von Trattner, the socially prominent wife of a Viennese music publisher. (Mozart and his wife had lodged in the Trattners’ house for a few months earlier that year.) A few months later, he composed a Fantasia in the same key, K. 475, and although the two pieces can be performed separately, they are closely related tonally and thematically and were published together in 1785 as Mozart’s Opus 11. The agitated, passionate, and often tragic atmosphere of these two sublime works is traditionally associated with the key of C minor. The Fantasia — not included in our performance — begins and ends with a slithering chromatic melody that is repeated in octaves at different tonal levels. Mozart obliquely alludes to this dark-minded theme in the first movement of the Sonata, this time in a more straightforward diatonic setting. K. 457 is laid out in the conventional three sections, with two propulsive and predominantly clear-textured fast movements bracketing a richly embroidered and expansively conceived Adagio in E-flat major. The thunderous coda of the opening Molto allegro ends not with a bang but a whimper. This tender mood is sustained throughout the more consolatory Adagio, but Mozart returns to high tragic mode in the finale, with its quirky, quizzical pauses and dramatic shifts of dynamics and register.
THOMAS “BLIND TOM” WIGGINS
The Battle of Manassas (1862)
Born into slavery in antebellum Georgia, the pianist and composer “Blind Tom” Wiggins is one of the most singular, and tragic, figures in the annals of American music. Despite the prodigious talent that manifested in boyhood — among other gifts, he could memorize and play complex pieces after one hearing — he was judged to be mentally, not just visually, impaired and thus incapable of managing his own affairs. After emancipation, he was exploited by a succession of white “patrons” and court-appointed guardians, who promoted him as an idiot savant (today he would be diagnosed as autistic) and pocketed most of his considerable concert earnings. Wiggins’s repertoire ranged from European art music — one of his “tricks” was playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto while standing backwards at the piano — to his own compositions, some of which featured technical effects that were far ahead of their time. The Battle of Manassas, for example, incorporates a panoply of martial tunes and nonmusical sounds, from Dixie and the Marseillaise to thudding cannon blasts (tone clusters) and a train whistle emanating from the pianist’s mouth. Wiggins was all of 12 years old when he made this free-wheeling contribution to the time-honored genre of “battle music,” inspired by a first-hand account of the Confederacy’s first major victory in the Civil War.
Tania León embodies multiculturalism in her life as well as her music: born in Havana, she traces her ancestry to Spain, Africa, France, and China, and identifies herself as an American composer in the most inclusive sense. Upon emigrating to the United States in 1967, León rose to prominence as a founding member of the Dance Theater of Harlem. Subsequent gigs with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic — as well as her advocacy work with Composers Now, the organization she founded in 2010 — have made her a leading voice on the city’s new-music scene. Earlier this year the Philharmonic premiered León’s Stride, one of 19 works by women composers commissioned to celebrate the centenary of the 19th Amendment. Rituál, composed in 1987, exemplifies her tough-minded but accessible modernist idiom: the music is infused with the driving rhythms of the batá drum ensembles that migrated from Nigeria to Cuba during the Black Atlantic diaspora. “For me, movement is music,” León once said. “When I hear music, movement materializes, and vice versa.” As she remarked about another of her works, “There’s dance in it. But to me it’s not dance — it’s something indigenous and vital that had no connection to dance when I wrote it.”
Heliotrope Bouquet (1907)
Born in 1868, when the teenage Wiggins was already winning accolades across the Atlantic, Scott Joplin came of age in the defiantly unreconstructed borderlands of America’s Reconstruction era. As an itinerant pianist and band leader touring the Jim Crow South and Midwest, he did more than anyone to popularize the lightly syncopated style of dance music known as ragtime (because the pianist “ragged” the rhythm of the melody line while maintaining a more or less steady pulse in the bass). Considered licentious by many middle-class whites and blacks, works like the Maple Leaf Rag — published in 1899 and Joplin’s first iconic hit — occupied a kind of halfway house between the dance hall and the concert stage. Joplin aspired to be recognized as a “serious” composer, an ambition partly realized when his opera Treemonisha was published — though not performed — in 1911. Instead, he was destined to go down in history as the “King of Ragtime.” Heliotrope Bouquet, a “slow drag two-step” that Joplin wrote in 1907 in collaboration with a lesser-known African-American pianist named Louis Chauvin, derives its intoxicating swing from the sultry, syncopated habanera rhythm (3 + 3 + 2 pulses) in the left hand.
Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, from North American Ballads (1979)
An elder statesman of America’s musical avant garde, Frederic Rzewski is often tagged as a “political” composer. The vein of social activism he mined in works such as The People United Will Never Be Defeated, a set of piano variations on a Chilean protest song, harks back to the music that Copland, Blitzstein, and other politically committed composers wrote in the 1930s and 1940s. But since Rzewski first came to prominence in the 1960s as a cofounder of the live electronic-music collective Musica Elettronica Viva, he has carved out a broader niche as the creator of elegantly crafted music that is at once powerfully expressive and sonorously imaginative. A case in point is Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, one of four North American Ballads written in the late 1970s for pianist Paul Jacobs. The soft, “machinelike” tremolos with which it opens are evocative of a spinning mill. These hazy sonic clusters soon give way to more sharply defined, but no less insistent, minimalist figurations. The music builds to a mighty climax, which the pianist allows to reverberate before picking up the musical thread in a tranquil, Gershwinesque vein. Thereafter, snatches of jazz and ragtime jostle for our attention until the rustling tremolos reemerge and ultimately die away.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111(1821–1822)
In 1817 Beethoven received a six-octave Broadwood piano as a gift from the English manufacturer. Although he was too deaf to appreciate the instrument’s expanded tonal and dynamic range, his subsequent piano music reveals a similar expansion of musical boundaries, as evidenced by the mighty “Hammerklavier” Sonata, Op. 106, of 1818 and its three sequels. Like many of Beethoven’s late works, these sonatas juxtapose passages of great tenderness and lucidity with lacerating eruptions of raw energy and emotion. Commissioned by a publisher in Berlin, the Sonatas Opp. 109–11 were composed between 1820 and late 1822, the period in which Beethoven was struggling to bring the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony to fruition. In these pathbreaking works, the last of his canonic 32 piano sonatas, one often has the sense that the deaf 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.
The C-Minor Sonata was conceived on a more monumental scale than its two predecessors. Yet in its way it, too, is a marvel of compression. The two-movement format was sufficiently unorthodox that the son of Beethoven’s publisher wrote to inquire if the copyist had inadvertently overlooked the finale. The Maestoso introduction sets the tone for the Sonata in its wayward harmonies (the home key isn’t definitively established until the beginning of the Allegro proper), its explosive outbursts and ominous rumblings, and the stinging syncopations that blur the outlines of its sharply etched rhythmic figures. The heraldic three-note motto (C, E-flat, B) that opens the Allegro contains more than enough energy to fuel the entire movement, rather like the hammering Fate motif in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The contrast with the luminous second-movement Arietta in C major could hardly be greater. Here, within a nominally conventional theme-and-variations framework, Beethoven gives free rein to his poetic imagination, transporting listeners — and perhaps even himself —to a place we have never visited before. Entwined in increasingly elaborate figurations, the simple tune takes on increasing grandeur until, in the final section, it shines forth transcendently amid a chorus of high, shimmering trills.