Composers: Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Stockhausen et al
Performers: Jeremy Denk p
Catalogue Number: Nonesuch 7559793471 (2CD)

Prior to this new release the American pianist Jeremy Denk has only released two albums – a meeting of Ligeti with Beethoven’s final sonata and a fine traversal of Bach’s Goldbergs, which was unusual in that it came with a DVD of the pianist discussing the work rather than the ubiquitous printed liner notes. That his latest covers around 800 years of contrapuntal writing, has raised my curiosity level yet again. Initially presented as an 80-minute recital at Lincoln Center, this fascinating programming idea has finally made it into the recording studio with excellent results.

As Denk explains in his liner notes, “you might call this album a version of time-lapse photography, which brings us from the 1300s to the present day in a series of sonic snapshots.” The recital starts in the medieval period with what he calls “two threads” – the sacred and the profane. And of course, when covering such a vast terrain of music, the choices become personal and, as such, are bound to create debate of over which composers and compositions to include in this fascinating endeavour.

Due to its length, it became necessary to divide the recital into two parts with disc one ranging from the simple two part voicings of Binchois through to Bach and his highly virtuosic Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, taken at quite a giddy pace. The second disc travels from Mozart and the second movement of his Sonata Facile K.545, to finish with Stockhausen, Glass and Ligeti before returning to the opening Binchois transcription. By doing this – that is, opening and closing the recital with
the same piece – Denk not only shows his listener just how far they have travelled in this recital – and indeed the influence of medieval music on contemporary composers like Philip Glass – it also brings the presentation full circle, as it were, in a similar manner to which Bach opens and closes his phenomenal Goldberg Variations.

There are some fascinating choices made by Denk, including a masterly take on A Voluntary by William Byrd. Indeed Scarlatti, Byrd, Purcell and Bach are the only keyboard originals encountered on the first disc. The rest are transcriptions of vocal works by the likes of Monteverdi, Ockeghem and Gesualdo – but such is Denk’s mastery of the instrument that it takes on a finely spun legato when needed.

The second disc highlights include a very fine Liszt transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod, and 20th-century masters such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Debussy. And while many of his choices are brief, they work together to make a finely weaved recital of great individuality and daring.