Piquant, meaningful programmes have always been a hallmark of Jeremy Denk’s recitals, and a welcome antidote to the endlessly recycled selections of mainstream repertory that too many top-flight pianists insist on touring. But even by Denk’s standards, this latest sequence was enormously ambitious and unprecedentedly wide-ranging. It was nothing less than a history of western music from medieval to modern, a two-hour journey through 24 short pieces that began with Machaut and Binchois and ended with Glass and Ligeti. Denk’s history was very much a survey of the way in which musical language has evolved over the last seven centuries, and not simply a chronicle of the development of keyboard music. In fact it was not until he reached the 16th century and the seventh piece in his recital, a voluntary from William Byrd’s My Ladye Nevells Booke, that he included anything specifically composed for a keyboard instrument at all. Up to that point his sequence had consisted of piano transcriptions (his own presumably) of vocal music – songs by Machaut, Binchois, Dufay and Janequin, even Kyries from masses by Ockeghem and Josquin.
There was no doubt there was something didactic in the way in which it had all been put together, and the lines of development it traced were certainly revealing. What was less clear was how well such a scheme worked as an evening of satisfying music making. For the Wigmore audience, who gave Denk a standing ovation, it was a triumph, but there were moments when pieces seemed to have been included more because they filled a gap in the chronology than for any more pressing musical reason, especially in the concert’s first half, which took the journey as far as the 1720s and Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue.
But the swirling energy of Denk’s Bach performance, like his sparky Scarlatti sonata (in B flat, Kk545) before it, and an arrangement of Gesualdo’s achingly dissonant O Dolce Mio Tesoro from the sixth book of madrigals, were among the highlights of the evening, for Denk’s progress through the 19th century proved rather patchy, almost eccentric at times. The drama of the first movement of Beethoven’s C minor Sonata Op 10 No 1 was exaggeratedly fierce, a movement from Schumann’s Op 12 Fantasiestücke and the first intermezzo of Brahms’s Op 119 set given too much expressive moulding, though it was wonderfully instructive to hear the first of Schoenberg’s Op 11 Piano Pieces immediately after the Brahms, perfectly pointing up the parallels between their musical worlds.
Once into the 20th century, Denk seemed on surer ground again. He relished the asymmetries and dislocations of Stravinsky’s Piano-Rag-Music, took a lucid path through the clusters and tangles of Stockhausen’s Klavierstück I, and guided the steady accumulations of the sixth of Ligeti’s Studies, “Automne à Varsovie”, to a thunderous climax, before bringing the evening full circle by repeating Binchois’s Triste Plaisir as a built-in encore. Ingenious certainly; totally successful? I’m not sure.
•At Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford on Avon (01225 860 100) on 23 September; Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff (029-2039 1391), on 25 September; and Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton (023-8059 5151), on 27 September. Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 20 September.