Concert planners, performers and even audiences often like to find a common thread which runs through a programme, and so Jeremy Denk’s Chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall could be said to have darkness and light as its main focus, opening with Scriabin’s demonic “Black Mass” piano sonata and closing with Beethoven’s otherworldly Op.111. The middle section of this philosophical musical sandwich was Bartók’s Piano Sonata which offered a contrasting respite with its wit and humour.

Jeremy Denk © Michael Wilson
Jeremy Denk
© Michael Wilson

This was Jeremy Denk’s debut recital at the BBC Proms (he performs with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at the Albert Hall on Sunday 30th August), and he is a pianist I have been curious to hear live for some time. A musical thinker, I have enjoyed his articles on music and his blog on the life of the performing pianist.

His reading of Scriabin’s “Black Mass” Sonata was the third performance of this work I have heard this year (previous accounts being by Yevgeny Sudbin and Garrick Ohlsson). It is a curious work, the most infamous of all of Scriabin’s piano sonatas, filled with malicious intent with its spooky unsettling harmonic shifts and propulsive rhythms. Scriabin himself described it as “sensual but poisonous”. Jeremy Denk took a different slant on the work, and his precise and crisply articulated account highlighted the atonality and modernity of the work with its piquant pre-Schoenbergian harmonies and startling motivic fragments. It was an account which suggested even more forcefully what this composer might have done had he lived longer into the first part of the 20th century.

Bartók’s Piano Sonata was a witty romp, its rambunctious folksy rhythms stamped out by Denk in both hands and feet (he has one of the most animated left legs in the business!), and throughout the work his physical gestures served to emphasise the narrative of the music.

Denk’s musical intelligence really came to the fore in Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, where he sought to demonstrate the paradox between the dark power of the first and the shimmering transcendence of the second movements. In a brief interview with Radio 3’s Petroc Trelawny before the performance, Denk talked about the diametric contrasts of this work, that the first movement is “consumed with the past”, the music of Beethoven’s antecedents, and is “in a hurry”, while the second movement is concerned with “the future”, and is entirely patient, unfolding like a long shaft of light.

Denk illustrated this “time paradox” in the sonata with a compelling and emphatic account of the first movement, the dark opening sentence growling out of the piano. The semiquaver figure which followed was frenzied, agitated, almost running away with itself as if it didn’t have time to be constrained by a time signature or bar lines. In complete contrast, the opening theme of the second movement was played with a meditative stillness, each note and phrase laid out with a consoling tenderness before undergoing a miraculous transformation in a series of ever-more intricate variations. The return of the theme at the end of the movement was an exercise in stillness and composure, complemented by the audience’s sympathetic silence at the end of the work.

Returning to the stage, Jeremy Denk admitted that it is very hard to follow the Op.111 with anything else, but he selected the slow movement of Mozart’s late piano sonata K533. Played with a thoughtful elegance, this allowed the special  atmosphere to linger a little longer.