Your reviewer was not the only member of the Tannery Pond audience on July 3 who has been following pianist Jeremy Denk’s career with some avidity. He played there a few years ago, accompanying Paula Robison (who preceded Denk this summer) with quite a different group of colleagues. This particular gentleman I spoke with, however, had heard him elsewhere in his general concert-going, and, like me, instantly beame a Denkist — or perhaps we should call ourselves Denkonians, to avoid confusion with that particularly odious and venal branch of the medical profession.
My entry into the fold occurred at the Liszt Festival at Bard College in 2006, when I heard Denk perform the Liszt B minor Sonata. (He teaches there.) This seemed to me at the time, although I’ve heard some important pianists perform the work, including some great Lisztian intellectuals like Kentner and Brendel, to be a supreme statement of the work. (Yes, somehow — most likely due to Liszt’s own exceptional intelligence and the literary culture he had acquired — at least some of his music is intellectual music, although he worked very hard at developing quite a different persona in his earlier career.) The Liszt Sonata has two overarching structures: that of a three-movement sonata enclosed within a single sonata movement. Hence the exposition is identified with the first movement, the second with the development, and the third with the recapitulation. This multi-dimensional treatment of sonata form became a model for Scriabin, Schoenberg, Berg, and others in the twentieth century. The B minor Sonata was as prophetic a work as Wagner’s operas, Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, and Bruckner’s mature symphonies, not to mention Liszt’s “Faust” Symphony and his better tone poems.
Very few have done as well as Denk in opening up and pulling together the many strands of this important work. It was the best Liszt B minor — the most probing and the most coherent — I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been a Denkonian ever since, following him through some of the most rewarding musical experiences I can remember: programs like his amazing one of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” (Op. 106), which I heard at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. And what a great “Concord” Sonata that was! My companion on that occasion, Jan Swafford, the Ives biographer, was thrilled by it.
If you know that Denk will make a program of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata and the “Hammerklavier,” you may conclude that whatever he puts together in a program has reason for being there — even more than that. The program will have an argument, not just the thoughtful concatenation we associate with “curated” programming, but a metaphysical exploration of music through affinities which are basically true on a musical level, i.e. a level far above that of the average program annotator, a species not especially loved by Denk. Some of the rationale behind this emerged in his brief observations to the audience. He cut them short on purpose, to cajole the audience into understanding the connections between the pieces through their listening.
While the “Fantasia quasi Sonata” Après une Lecture de Dante, a work of Liszt quite different from the B minor Sonata, stood at the center of the program at Tannery Pond on July 3, Denk’s maiden voyage with the work before an audience, the germ of the program was set in motion by two toccatas of J. S. Bach, Toccata in D major, BWV 912 and Toccata in F-sharp minor, BWV 910. Before addressing them at the keyboard, he explained just what a toccata consists of: a succession of improvisations and formal sections, fantasie, dances, airs, and fugues — a loose improvisatory concoction, but an ordered one, as Denk made absolutely clear in his performances. This order, however, was not of the obvious sort; it was rather an organic form which emerged from the pianist’s understanding of every aspect of the works and their interrelationships. This sort of understanding comes not only from his deep analysis of the composition, but from his total indentification with the melodic lines, harmonies, and counterpoint — that is, Bach’s compositional processes, the activity of his musical imagination. In the case of these toccatas, it goes back to Bach’s legendary improvisations. As Denk explained, these pieces show a side of Bach that is less often recognized today, that of the virtuoso, who in all self-assurance relished displaying his unique abilities before an audience. The two toccatas Denk played are rich, multi-faceted works, in which Bach developed quite different solutions to his desire to impress and amaze an audience of strangers — mostly likely a roomful of noble amateurs.
Denk played these with intensity and total concentration, recreating for himself and the audience Bach’s own experience of bravura improvisation and performance. These were uncompromising and ambitious interpretations, equal to the dimensions of Bach’s invention. They also brought Denk and his audience into an improvisatory spirit which served well throughout the program, from Liszt’s “Fantasia quasi Sonata,” to György Ligeti’s meticulously thought-out Études, Livre I, which nonetheless demand an impression of spontaneity in the tradition of Chopin and Liszt, and Beethoven’s contrasting pair of movements, one tempestuous and earth-bound, the other a transcendent spiritual ascent. In his spoken introductions Denk hinted at another element shared by all the works in the program, the diabolical, a quality traditionally associated with musical virtuosity, not that witchcraft wasn’t a visible part of Bach’s world.
In his commentary on Liszt’s, Denk brought up the story of Liszt’s early life as a sinner, when the itinerant virtuoso “slept his way through Europe”… virtuosically. Later he became a priest and supposedly put all that behind him. (In fact he was received into the lower orders, in which there was no vow of celibacy, and he specifically stated that he had no desire to live as a monk.) His point is that the music of the sinners on their way to Hell seems more deeply felt than the hymns of the righteous on their way to heaven. He played these themes, when they return late in the work, sounding against one another, with poignant nostalgia for the joys of earthly life.
Denk brought the same awareness of shape and structure to Liszt’s Fantasia that he had earlier used most fruitfully in the B minor Sonata. However, this is a very different sort of work. While it has something of the symmetry of a sonata (hence Liszt’s title), it is first and foremost a poesia, intended to be presented to the audience as a quasi-improvisation, as if memories of his reading of Dante were floating through the composer-virtuoso’s mind as he played. Denk is a passionate and sensitive reader himself, and no musician could identify more closely with Liszt’s experience. He played the Fantasia on a very grand scale, extracting every last bit of sound from the Tannery’s excellent Yamaha concert grand, as well as pouring himself into the most delicate pianissimi. As in the Bach and all the other works on the program, Denk succeeded in identifying himself totally with the composer and his thought processes, both as inventor and performer. His ability to make himself one with the music is what sets him apart from the vast majority of pianists. Après une Lecture de Dante is a great work of the imagination, but only for those who can grasp it. Otherwise it is no more than empty posturing and display.
The Ligeti Études, Désordre (Disorder), Cordes à vide (Exhausted Chords), Touches bloquées (Blocked Keys), Fanfares, and Automne à Varsovie (Autumn in Warsaw), as brief as they are, are almost insanely intricate elaborations of traditional technical problems for the keyboard, and they are dense. Yet they are surprisingly accessible, at least as Denk plays them. As in the études of his predecessors, Chopin, Liszt, and Bartók, each contains a poetic world, as redolent of moods and dreaming as any work of Debussy. In addition to his ability to capture the melody, feelings, and colors of these works, Denk did not disguise his impressive technical capacities. Christian Steiner, who served as “celebrity page-turner” in two of the études, remarked on the complexity of the scores: his job wasn’t an easy one. Denk, by the way, decided to omit No. 5, “Arc-en-ciel.” The diabolical was present in ample measure, not only in Ligeti’s fanatical invention, but in some of the strange states of mind suggested by them, and what is more devilish than disorder?
The evening concluded with a truly great reading of one of Beethoven’s supreme expressions, the Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Opus 111. It was by this point no surprise that the infernal qualities just mentioned appeared among the unstable mood swings of the first movement. These violent oscillations come to rest in the simple, three-note falling motif of the Arietta, which contains the germ of the heaven-bound variations which follow, leading to “the most powerful return in music,” if I quote Denk more or less correctly. As much, or even more, than in the other music, his preliminary analysis, leading to a total identification with the music and its construction by a process which must have much in common with meditation, gave him access to the heart of Beethoven’s composition. In his performance every detail of Beethoven’s writing was clearly represented, while Denk engulfed us in the spiritual path of the music. He played the variations all’attacca, so that each one developed organically out or the one that preceded it, giving the movement an intellectual argument as well as a constant flow as spiritual progression.
To those of us who have been following Jeremy Denk’s work over the past few years, it is clear that he is growing musically and spiritually, and so are we, as this unique musician teaches us to be more conscious listeners.