Music Review: Jeremy Denk – teller of tales, painter of place

Published 2:45 pm Thursday, December 16, 2010

The third of December was a fine day – still early enough in the month to continue my stiff resistance to holiday madness yet late enough to want something special. Tryon Concert Association proudly presented pianist Jeremy Denk which more than filled the bill.
I was pleased to see the program would open with 14 etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti and just as pleased when it did not. Through a short-circuiting of artist management and artist’s plans, two J.S. Bach toccatas (D Major and F# minor) came first leaving a half-dose of Ligeti for later.
It is hard to describe what Denk can do with keyboard music by the undisputed master of polyphony. He had so thoughtfully imagined the composer at a very particular time. Listening as if hearing the unburdened young Bach, one can delight in Denk’s renditions without questioning his flashier-than-usual take on these multifarious works. At the same time, I found Denk’s playing to be heartrendingly introspective, though who hasn’t discovered that the Life of the Party is often an analytical introvert?
Gyorgy Ligeti (LIH-guh-tee, b.1923 Hungary, d.2006 Austria) stated that his etudes “proceed from a very simple core idea, and lead from simplicity to great complexity: They behave like growing organisms.” Denk chose to play Etudes 1,2,4,5, and 6 (Book 1). My favorite was the second – “Cordes a vide” – which uses the open fifths of standard orchestral stringed instruments as its building blocks. For as long as I can remember, the sound of an orchestra tuning has been on my list of Favorite Things.
“One thing Ligeti’s doing is challenging the pianist to ape a machine; he evokes the (seemingly) infinite calculations we are used to our PCs doing for us every day. Perversely, he wants to see us try to do them. But this machine desire is not heartless, or bloodless. Rather, it’s a thrilling, terrifying, uncompromising ride towards where you won’t be able to do it any more. (Aren’t we all on one of those?) It’s the life-affirming death-wish of the work.” [Denk, September blog entry.]
Denk seemed to relish his journey through Ligeti’s challenges. At times, each hand had its own mind. At times, the in-your-face complexities were perversely hypnotic. It was great to hear this 20th century composer. Esoteric is often a self-fulfilling prophecy and broad and frequent exposure is a surefire antidote.
Hearing “lamenting souls of the damned” after a “thrilling, terrifying, uncompromising ride” proved to be fine programming. Franz Liszt’s “Apres une Lecture de Dante” was inspired by Dante’s “Inferno” with evil tritones conjuring a fiery hell and a sublime chorale lifting us to the heavens. To hear such a piece played by someone with Denk’s maturity, depth, and imagination was a rare treat.
Liszt is often trotted out by hot shots and whiz kids who delight in the difficulty, but make cartoons of the pictures they should be painting.
What on earth else? Late Beethoven, of course. His “Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111” brought the evening’s previous explorations to a head. Beethoven’s last piano sonata seems to say it’s fine to stare quietly into the center of a lily for as long as you want. My ability to concentrate was waning, so it was helpful that Beethoven had still been angry enough to bark a little between his calmer insights. This late work is dreamy in many sections and requires a true suspension of time to give the impression that the piece may – or may not – move forward. Denk remained immersed and kept the tipping point in just the right spot. Because he was comfortable, so was I. Very. The end.
For those interested in experiencing Denk as a writer, I highly (and I mean highly) recommend his blog “think denk – the glamorous life and thoughts of a concert pianist.” As when I hear him play, I am never disappointed (and I mean never). The web address is (or Google “Jeremy Denk” to locate it).

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