Jeremy Denk’s agenda for his Celebrity Series of Boston recital on Saturday was a wonderful riposte to those relentlessly conventional programs that traffic largely in canon favorites. True, his concert was bookended by the familiar, opening with Bach’s Third English Suite and ending with Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat.
Between them, though, was a hugely imaginative suite of ragtime-related works of the pianist’s own assemblage, a “seven-part iPod shuffle,” he called it, exploring “the joy and wit of syncopation.” The terms were set in Scott Joplin’s “Sunflower Slow Drag,” Denk playing with a supple left hand and just a bit behind the beat, to keep the ‘ragged’ rhythms from becoming mechanical. Those basic elements were fed through the shredder in Stravinsky’s “Piano-Rag Music,” which resembled a Joplin rag as a cubist portrait resembles its subject. A Pavane by William Byrd seemed initially to be the odd piece out, but in the syncopated accents of one of its variations Denk had shrewdly found a ragtime precursor centuries before the fact.
Hindemith’s “Ragtime,” from his piano suite “1922,” played like a deconstruction of the genre’s rhythmic interface, working itself into a machinic frenzy. William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost Rag” lowered the temperature; a canon by Conlon Nancarrow, with exactingly differentiated speeds between left and right hands, raised it back up. The outrageous closer was a stomping arrangement of the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” rendered as a stride piano showpiece by Donald Lambert. It is an amazing feat of cultural appropriation that’s also funny as hell.
Denk’s playing of this glorious pastiche was all energy and mischievous glee. Some of its rhythmic wildness seeped into the Bach as well, which he charged through in almost breakneck fashion, at times seeming to get carried away by its forward momentum. In the Sarabande he spotlighted Bach’s remarkable harmonies without sacrificing the aura of stillness he’d created.
It was fascinating to hear the Schubert in the shadow of András Schiff’s performance of the same work in February. Where Schiff approached the sonata as a single, arcing journey, Denk’s performance was more varied, his tone changing in a moment from soft-edged to brusque. The valedictory first movement didn’t cast the mesmerizing spell that Schiff created, but the finale emerged as a dramatic focal point, an expressionistic cry of pain that belied the idea that in this movement Schubert had found resilience in the face of tragedy.
The lone encore was the thirteenth of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a welcome respite from the tumult that preceded it.
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
At Jordan Hall, April 2David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.