Jeremy Denk to take centre stage at celebratory Lammermuir Festival

The pandemic forced US pianist Jeremy Denk to cancel a major tour of book one of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, but next month – as artist-in-residence at the Lammermuir Festival – he’ll finally get a chance to perform it. He speaks to David Kettle about a creative process he describes as “loss, then therapy, then training”

Jeremy Denk PIC: Michael Wilson

East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival is back. Not that it ever really went away: last year’s generous online offerings were some of the best thought-out of the pandemic. But it’s back, live, and bigger than ever, with events across a full 14 days. It’s as if co-artistic directors Hugh Macdonald and James Waters have been storing up their ideas and excitement over the past 18 months of restrictions, only to let them out in a lavish, celebratory splurge.

It’s churlish to pick highlights, of course, but there are performances from Scottish artists including (deep breath) the Maxwell Quartet, Dunedin Consort, BBC SSO and SCO, Red Note and Hebrides Ensembles, lutenist Alex McCartney and accordionist Ryan Corbett, plus visits from pianist Tom Poster’s Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective, the Navarra Quartet and crack choral groups Tenebrae, the Gesualdo Six and the Marian Consort.

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Probably the festival’s highest-profile visitor, however, is US pianist Jeremy Denk, who’s artist in residence across the whole event. He’s a remarkable figure, as much a thinker as a player (not for nothing was he named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow in 2013), and as much admired for his pioneering, sometimes challenging programming as he is for his brilliantly perceptive playing.

Denk has four concerts to demonstrate his musical passions across solo, chamber and orchestral music. “I hope they’re all different facets of happiness in one way or another,” he explains of his thinking behind the performances. “I’m almost never happier on stage than when I’m playing or play-directing a Mozart concerto.”

That composer’s concertos Nos 14 and 23 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra mark the festival’s final concert, and were also the starting point for Denk’s initial involvement. "James Waters met when he was in New York maybe a couple of years ago – such a long time ago now. He asked me what was the music I most loved to play, so we talked about Mozart, and Bach and Ives, and other things I play.”

Indeed, Bach is the focus of Denk’s opening Lammermuir recital, specifically book one of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the remarkable collection of 24 preludes and fugues in every major and minor key: “It’s a Noah’s ark musical situation,” says Denk, “where every musical animal is brought forth.”

It’s music that’s been at the forefront of Denk’s mind during the pandemic. "I had a pretty substantial tour arranged for April and May of last year, and I’d been working on the music for a long time. I played some of those pieces as a kid, but others I’d never played. So it was a bit crushing to have that whole project vanish. For a while, I couldn’t play any of it: there was just this sense of loss. But then once I’d chilled out, it was almost like going back to school again. It was all over the place: loss, then therapy, then training.”

More provocative is Denk’s other Lammermuir solo recital, which brings together more Bach (the Fifth Partita) plus Beethoven (the visionary final Sonata, Op. 111), and a quartet of lesser-known pieces, three by Black composers, including the remarkable, forward-looking cacophony of the Civil War-inspired The Battle of Manassas by Blind Tom Wiggins, born a slave in 1849. “I was thinking of a suite that was more or less inspired by the whole summer of Black Lives Matter protests,” Denk explains. “That piece commemorates a great Confederate victory, which obviously brings some incredible resonances. It also has this remarkably violent aspect to it, with cannons and clusters. It’s incredibly ahead of its time.”

Like the festival itself, Denk is excited about his return to live performances. “It’s a great relief – and it’s also very scary. Myself and all the musicians I know, we feel we’ve learnt something during the pandemic, and we want to bring it to the audience. I’ve been thinking about musical empathy a lot. How do you create a phrase that somehow makes everyone understand – and feel? What value does it add to the world?”

Lammermuir Festival, across East Lothian, 7-20 September, www.lammermuirfestival.co.uk

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