An Almost Useless Undertaking By A Major Pianist

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 4

Sound Quality: 9

Attempting to cram the history of western music, 700 years of it, onto two CDs, and perform it only on piano by one pianist, may seem like a stunt, and in fact it is, and/or improbable, which it also is. That Jeremy Denk is a great pianist is of no doubt—he won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2013 and his recording of three of Bach’s Partitas (on Azica) is stunning. This idea came about for the 2016 Lincoln Center White Light Festival and it should have remained an idea: this set of CDs, a hodgepodge of styles and thoughts and personal favorites from each era seems like the ne plus ultra of a Music 101 course (yes, Denk acknowledges such in the notes) rather than either an evening’s listening or any truly practical music course.

The problems arise in the very first pieces by Machaut, Binchois, Ockeghem, Dufay, et al. Renaissance music relies on textures, the intermingling of voices with different qualities and specific registers, and while Denk plays each piece handsomely—even Monteverdi’s “Zefiro torna”—the effect is flat. The final piece on CD 1 is Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, actually a fine transition out of the Renaissance and into the Classical, Romantic, and modern eras represented on the second CD. I appreciate the shock effect of moving from an early Mozart sonata to Beethoven’s last, and on to the wavering tonality of the Liebestod. But so what? One man’s idea of what Western music is—with an almost scornfully gloomy reading of Philip Glass’ Etude No. 2? A messy idea late night in the dorm over a bong hit or two. And arrogantly executed at that.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Jeremy Denk c. 1300 -c. 2000

Music by Machaut, Binchois, Dufay, Byrd, Gesualdo, Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Liszt, Debussy, Stockhausen, Glass, Ligeti; 8 more

  • Jeremy Denk (piano)

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