Denk at Carnegie, Through Ligeti’s Ears

United StatesUnited States Bartók, Liszt, Bach, Beethoven: Jeremy Denk (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 22.3.2013 (DA)

Bartók: Piano Sonata, Sz. 80
Liszt: ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’
Prelude after J. S. Bach, S. 179
‘Sonetto del Petrarca No. 123’
‘Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata’ from Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année, S. 161;
Isoldes Liebestod, S. 447
Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from Das Wohltempierte Clavier, Book I, BWV 869
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op.111

We should cherish Jeremy Denk. Not only can he explain the music he plays with prose more engrossing than most professional critics (enviably so), but his playing itself is idiosyncratic, honest, and humble. It revels in rhythm and disjuncture, not least because Denk knows that we can only hear the music of the past through ears tuned by the present. He makes you think through innovative programming, while maintaining a voracious glee for music’s intrigues, its troubles, and its understanding.

Bartók’s 1926 sonata is usually played fiercely, but Denk’s version of it had a fun side, celebrating rhythmic play and Stravinskian attack. The japes in the first movement especially echoed the wit Denk brings to Bach and Ligeti alike (in fact the whole concert seemed to be played through Ligeti’s ears). There were definite undertones to Denk’s modernistic playing, though, with attack that startled precisely because it was imprecise. Bells and dissonance clashed at the start of the slow movement, the right hand’s E piercing the left’s E-flat and F, and Denk continued to underline confrontations as his melody struggled to break through spectral harmonies. The finale was all virtuosity, an alarmed release of cheek that put the molto back into allegro molto. Impressionistic, perhaps too much so at times, this was a riot of color and movement. Rarely has Bartók’s music laughed as much as this.

Denk has assembled a suite from three Liszt works, and added a final transcription as a postlude. Liszt’s reworking and reharmonization of Bach’s ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’ is rarely heard in prelude form (although Horowitz played it), but it maintains the slippery, drowning sense of the original. Denk’s playing was moody here, with an airy raptness giving way to febrility, and it maintained its rhythmic alertness even in a haze of pedal. The last of Liszt’s Petrarch sonnets had an equal stillness in places, with a smoothly chaste melody barely holding back lusts periodically breaking through. (As Denk’s program note knowingly put it, ‘Liszt had a very complicated relationship to sin.’)

The Dante sonata was slightly less successful, with Denk’s in-the-moment playing perhaps leaving structure too implicit. The opening understood the importance of silence as it built massively into pulsating, fearfully chromatic playing of the first subject, which intriguingly sacrificed what melody there is to the fires stoked in the texture. The contrasting second theme (hell against heaven as D minor rubs against F sharp major) was suitably beatific, dreaming dreams and seeing visions in a very human way. Denk’s playing had a tendency towards fussiness and was often far from clean, but then matters of redemption and damnation are hardly antiseptic. The tone he found from his Steinway up high in the register was enough to convince anyone of heaven’s attractions, even if Liszt leaves the matter open.

Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde was more instantly satisfactory, Denk rightly treating this as purely piano music rather than an orchestral echo. It’s a difficult piece to bring off not least because Wagner’s scoring is so memorable, and not hearing four hours of the music-drama itself makes you wonder what all the fuss is about. Denk nevertheless managed to keep the original’s heart-racing quality and couple it to wrenching tenderness and natural rubato, holding the last chord to its very last reverberation, as if Isolde’s transfiguration were something the pianist (and we) should refuse to let go of.

For all his intellectual energy, Denk does not give off the vibe of a pianist-philosopher like Daniel Barenboim or Claudio Arrau. His playing is just as valuable and important, however, for its modesty and the personal touches he brings (and encourages us to bring) to the greatest of works.

This was the case with the Bach and Beethoven after the interval. The Bach – the final pair of the first 24 of Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues – was fluid, as is all Denk’s Bach, full of give and take. The fugue was delivered as if it were Schoenberg, taking its cue from the tone-row theme, quickish but full of contrapuntal life.

The last of Beethoven’s 32 was as much rhetorical as structural, full of gestural flourishes. The first movement unfurled, fanfare-like, into a bristling Allegro con brio that focused on the bare essentials. What some would linger over, Denk brushed aside with endearing enthusiasm. This was playing that was alive and full of drama, furious at the development, ferocious throughout. Likewise with the spontaneous joys of the Arietta, the opening expressing a hoped-for dignity over primeval harmonies. The rest of the movement progressed less seraphically than with uncertainty, unsure of where it was headed, full of extremes, waiting to be found and brought home. The jazzy third variation was crazy, and taken crazily fast, but infectious, and so beautifully offset by the beguiling charms of what followed, before a total breakdown. Denk brought the theme back as if in one of Liszt’s tone poems, a miraculous but humane occurrence, almost violent in the way it brought everything together. Not an Op. 111 to hear often, Denk’s, but certainly one to hear.

The encores were Variation 13 from the Goldberg Variations, and the evening’s highlight; the second of Brahms’s Op.118 set, played with poise despite poignant inner doubts.

David Allen