Concert Review: Pianist Jeremy Denk — Probing Intelligence and Wit

Pianist Jeremy Denk wields a large artillery of dynamics and colors, and it served him well in this performance.

Jeremy Denk — he impressed listeners from the opening notes of the Bartók.

by Susan Miron.

At this point in his career, the 42-year-old pianist Jeremy Denk is almost as well-known (at least in music circles) for his writing as for his piano playing. His blog, Think Denk: The Glamorous Life of a Concert Pianist, chronicles the hilarious and frustrating minutia of the tedious, not-so-so glamorous “concert life.” It has been widely noticed and admired, leading to front page reviews in the Sunday New York Times Book Review and pieces in The New Republic, The New Yorker, and Newsweek.

The same probing intelligence and wit suffuse Denk’s piano playing and choice of repertoire. His first cd (See Fuse review) featured the wildly virtuoso piano sonatas of Charles Ives and the monstrously difficult Etudes of Gyorgy Ligeti, which he played stunningly last year at the Gardner Museum.

Saturday’s concert, under the auspices of The Celebrity Series of Boston, was a meaty program: a Bartók sonata, four pieces by Liszt, a Prelude and Fugue by Bach, and Beethoven’s last sonata. Denk impressed the listeners from the opening notes of the Bartók.

The Bartók Sonata, Sz. 80 (1881–1945) is a perfect way to open a recital. If its frenetic energy and propulsive rhythms doesn’t grab the attention of a sophisticated audience, nothing will. Written in 1926, dubbed Bartók’s “piano year,” the sonata is full of dissonances, clusters of repeated notes, and almost non-stop percussiveness, with lovely folk music underneath. Denk played it terrifically. The program notes (by Zoe Kimmerling) were strange: “The music often breaks down into purely percussive madness, an abandonment of the spirit that no corporeal dance could follow.” That said, Denk danced it quite perfectly.

Franz Liszt (1811–1886) got a huge amount of attention two years ago because of his bicentenary. Denk continued the celebration of this flamboyant pianist and composer with a quartet of diverse works, beginning with “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen, prelude for piano (after J.S. Bach),” based on the descending chromatic bass from Bach’s Cantata BWV 12, which he used later in the B Minor Mass. Next came the introverted and dreamy “Sonetto 123 del Petrarca,” inspired by the fourteenth-century, Italian sonneteer Petrarch’s poem “I beheld angelic grace on earth” (“I’ vidi in terra angelici costume“). Denk took a break from the devilishly difficult loud pieces to give an angelic performance of another piece from Années de pèlerinage. Après une lecture du Dante and Fantasia quasi Sonata are also from Années de pèlerinage and resonate with intimations of the heaven, hell, and purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Denk played it extremely well, giving these supernatural sites their due.

Finally, Denk played (wonderfully) one of Liszt’s greatest transcriptions, “Isolde’s Liebestold (after Wagner),” S. 447 (you might want to hear Marc-André Hamelin’s version on YouTube). Everything was just perfect—the tremelos, the rhapsodic slow buildup of the melodic line throughout the piece’s gorgeous, increasingly intense build-up. Denk wields a large artillery of dynamics and colors, and it served him well here. The performance was thrilling.

After intermission, Denk played the Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 869, the last piece in the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier. (Oddly, the program notes argue that B minor is an uncommon minor key. Hardly. For starters, Bach used it in his B Minor Mass, a B minor flute sonata, the Second Suite for Flute and Strings, and the B minor solo partita for violin). Denk played a most impressive Goldberg Variations (now recorded) at Gardner Museum last year and has a very good CD out featuring the three Bach Partitas. He played the Prelude detaché, quietly and thoughtfully, then played the Fugue with more power and drama. It isn’t often that Bach is played after intermission rather than on the first half of the program, but it worked.

Jeremy Denk captured the rhythmic and melodic essence of the last Beethoven piano sonata perfectly.

The last Beethoven piano sonata, #32 (Opus 111), is one of my favorite pieces of music; I think I could listen to its second movement every day. It is truly a wonder, almost a miracle of composition. Denk would seem to agree with me. When he spoke to Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, he said, “The last Beethoven Sonata seems (to me) to be one of the most profound musical journeys to infinity ever made. The whole piece seems to want to bring us from a present moment into this timeless space where everything is continuous and endless.” The sonata has only two movements. The highly virtuosic first movement, full of drama, fury ,and passion, sends its demonic (yes, so soon after the Liszt) theme through its paces, up and down the keyboard and everywhere in between. Denk played it extremely well.

Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood dismisses the oft-asked question about why the composer never wrote a third movement: Nothing in the general literature is more familiar than speculation as to why this C-minor sonata has ‘only’ two movements, and no controversy is more useless.” Beethoven’s second (and final) movement, “Arietta,” labeled “Adagio molto semplice e cantabile,” (Adagio, to be played very simply and in a singing manner), proffers a theme followed by four intricate variations. It opens like a hymn, slowly, quietly, hypnotically, then changes meter with each variation, suddenly and unexpectedly moving into a jazzy (some say be-bopish) version of its former self. Then the theme slowly dies out, yet it retains a certain pizazz. Denk, who has recorded this piece, captures its rhythmic and melodic essence perfectly. I can think of no more dramatic or satisfying way to end a concert. Bravo to Denk, who played this extraordinary sonata—and in fact the whole program—brilliantly.

Fuse interview with Jeremy Denk

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