Pianist and writer Jeremy Denk’s famous “Jetlagged Manifesto” takes to task program notes that seem to wallow in historicism, genericism, and domestication—all easily committed “sins” by a musicologist and critic–so I tread cautiously. But that he also applies these warnings to his own musical performance became clear at his afternoon recital at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday, January 12th.
It was with some dismay that I took my seat in Calderwood Hall to find a set of program notes by various writers, with only a few brief comments on the Ligeti Études authored by Denk himself. Of course we were all there to hear Denk the pianist, not witness Denk the writer, but my familiarity with the latter informs my reception of the former. Denk came armed, however, with comments from the stage that were masterfully extemporized and complemented a concert that was a beautiful balance of passion and erudition.
The programming order of the first half, which showcased two very different Mozart sonatas, took me by surprise, but Denk’s performance of Mozart’s Sonata no. 15 in F Major, K. 533/494 followed by the earlier Sonata no. 8 in A Minor, K. 310 demonstrated in living color his protest against “historicization.” His presentation of K. 533/494, in fact, demanded fresh ears to hear the emboldened Mozart who, according to Denk, was in the late 1780s “not thinking as much about commercial imperatives.” While he—and many others—have noted the heavily contrapuntal nature of the F Major sonata, Denk’s performance of the first movement encapsulated his larger musical philosophies. Capitalizing upon Mozart’s almost deceptively graceful beginning, Denk’s left hand asserted itself in a display of contrapuntal fireworks—part of what Denk must have meant when he described the movement as “full of gleeful misadventure.” There were times, particularly in the development, where Denk’s pedaling seemed to muddy the sound too much, but I’ve found Calderwood to be a very different acoustic creature depending on where one sits. His emphatic and resounding coda opened the door for the Andante, which, to my ears, is truly the most extraordinary movement of the sonata. The music prefigures the harmonic language of later Beethoven, Mahler, and I’d say, even Gershwin, and Denk’s performance represented Mozart more than as some standard bearer of The Classical Style. He kept the tempo steady, relying upon dynamic contrasts and expression to weave together pensivity, Chopinesque pathos, and moments of gossamer grace. His eyes closed as in prayer, Denk masterfully created such a Mahlerian climax that the return to the initial idea seemed no mere repeat, but instead a rebirth. After this stunning centerpiece, it would be easy to make the Rondo finale—a slightly revised version of an earlier work from 1786—very trite, but Denk was careful to keep it charming, but not saccharine. His attention to harmonic patterns and transitions made it more of a Rondo-Fantasia, a fine representation of Mozart’s composition unfettered by public expectation (both in the 18th century and in the present day).
Denk’s performance of the A Minor sonata, one of only two piano sonatas that Mozart wrote in a minor key, seemed no less extraordinary. His tempo in the first movement favored the Allegro over the Maestoso but highlighted a certain rambunctious character that underscores the stormier moments. Again, as with the previous sonata, Denk’s Andante was a deft display of expressive subtlety. After the reflective first section of the movement, a more buoyant Mozart emerged in Denk’s careful attention to articulation, especially in sequential passages. Part of Denk’s artistry lies in his manipulation of the higher registers, particularly in Mozart’s music. The moments of thoughtful repose were countered by fiery ascending scales, which simmered with passion, but never boiled over. That same sense of restraint served Denk well in the opening of the Presto finale, highlighting the shapes of Mozart’s phrasing. The sweetness of the major key sections, which Denk cited as “heartbreaking glimpses of happiness,” were contrasted by seat-shaking bursts of Sturm und Drang, evoking the spirit of a 20-something Mozart, stricken with grief at the loss of his mother, yet with hope in reserve.
Denk opened the second half with three of the piano etudes of György Ligeti (1923-2006), all of which are masterful expansions of traditional “etudes” and provide a kaleidoscope of techniques and textures. Denk recorded the first two books of Ligeti’s Études (Nos. 1- 15) on the Nonesuch label in 2011, and for the concert performed no. 11 “En suspens” and No. 7 “Galamb borong,” topped off with the aptly named fifteenth etude, “L’escalier du diable” (Devil’s Staircase). “En suspens” seemed less Debussy-esque than in Denk’s recorded version, and was a wonderful piece to watch as the pianist caressed his glissandi out of the Steinway. “Galamb borong,” which Ligeti himself described as sounding Hungarian but should be heard “in the context of pseudo-Gamelan music,” was a riveting display of Denk’s physicality as a performer. The work demands cross-hand reaches to both extremes of the keyboard, which Denk accomplished with Lisztian panache. Denk quipped that Ligeti’s simultaneous use of two whole tone scales might make the piano sound “vaguely out of tune” to some listeners, adding, “It probably will be by the time I’m finished [with the etudes].” If the frenetic rhythms and clashing harmonies of the seventh etude didn’t jostle the Steinway’s tuning, Denk’s electrifying performance of “L’escalier du diable” certainly might have. Holding my breath in anxiety for the page-turner, I marveled at Denk’s ability to make the slower sections as terrifying as the heart-stopping runs. The ascending movement in the piece is certainly diabolical in that its growth seems simultaneously infinite and imperceptible. Denk grew increasingly insistent and aggressive in his playing, a gallant knight fighting against the forces of evil to reach the summit, riding on a decidedly jazzy steed, whose rhythmic energy kept the performance as intriguing as it was virtuosic.
While Denk professed that there was no underlying connection among the pieces on the program, his choice to end the concert with Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, nevertheless seemed apropos. In an afternoon filled with emotionally ambivalent music, Schumann’s 1837 piano suite was a perfect finale to fully capture the plurality of affect at which the Mozart and Ligeti selections only hinted. While the work is framed as a set of musical dialogues between Schumann’s fictitious alter egos Florestan and Eusebius, Denk’s performance offered a sense of greater whole, rather than a set of 18 character pieces. The emotional shifts between the forceful and passionate Florestan and the inniglich musings of Eusebius can, in the hands of an emotionally-detached player, impart a sort of musical schizophrenia, prioritizing contrast over nuance. Denk, however, seemed to use Eusebius as the anchor, particularly in the no. 2 waltz, which returns in the penultimate piece. He injected the return of the waltz with new sensitivity that seemed to come “wrapped in memory,” as Denk put it, ultimately upstaging Florestan’s dramatic coda that follows. With tongue-in-cheek, Denk remarked that the final number is a “superfluous” waltz, and certainly Schumann maintains this game, prefacing no. 18 in the first edition of the score with: “Quite superfluously, Eusebius remarked as follows, but all the time great bliss spoke from his eyes.” This, perhaps, is one of Denk’s greatest gifts as a pianist, to bring meaning to the “superfluous”, and to dim the lights of historical assumption. Great bliss, indeed, spoke from Denk’s playing. His rendering of Florestan’s no. 12 “Mit humor” garnered the requisite quiet chuckle from the audience, but only a few minutes later, the ghost of Schumann the lieder composer filled the room with no. 14 “Zart und singend.” Denk’s precocious energy in nos. 3 & 4 was but a memory when he reached the heart-wrenchingly beautiful A-flat major section in no. 7. Just as Schumann did not create Florestan and Eusebius as one-dimensional characters, Denk found opportunities to give them emotional shape and contrast, as in Florestan’s no. 10 “Balladenmässig,” which, in the tradition of Chopin’s Ballades, is both a virtuosic showpiece and an emotional narrative. The individual pieces were not enumerated on the program, and this was all the better as Denk did not play them that way. Instead he offered Schumann’s work as a collage of sentiment, excitement, and artistry that reached across the ages back to Mozart, and forward to Ligeti, connecting them in emotional resonance.
Denk’s performance was not “note-perfect”—there were moments where passion usurped technical accuracy, but these were few. What is important is Denk’s lessons for his listeners and his remedy for what he has cited as “classical music’s ‘age problem.’” In writing about the deadly sins of program notes, he warns: “…a thicket of dates and boring circumstances tends to evoke an officious wall between us and the living work, reminding us for no good reason that the composer is dead, conjuring his coffin, a notched timeline.” This is no less true of musical performance. Denk’s playing is in fact a sort of resurrection, exhuming the spirit of composers from their stylistic pigeonholes, and rescuing them from pedantry and historicism. This is not to say that Denk disregards performance practice, technique, or style, but he simply allows these works to live anew in every performance, rather than relegating them to a stagnant museum wherein music should have no place.