Review of Jeremy Denk at The 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival

Jeremy Denk in Recital

Pianist Jeremy Denk is carving out a major career as an advocate, and a very persuasive one, for the music of Charles Ives and Gyorgy Ligeti.  In addition to his work as accompanist to megastar violinist Joshua Bell, the last couple of years have seen him record both Ives Sonatas as well as two books of Ligeti Études.  His recital at the Kapell Competition Wednesday night provided a look at both his superbly worked out  and deeply understood Ligeti Études, and a sample of his way with more standard repertoire in the form of Brahms’ Klavierstücke, Op. 118 and Book 1 of his Paganini Variations, Op. 35.  Playing all of the Études and the Paganini Variations on the same program would be considered by many pianists to be a suicide mission.  Both sets are incredibly technically demanding and physically taxing in the extreme.  I think by the end of the evening, even Mr. Denk may have had second thoughts about the wisdom of undertaking it.

Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk

He opened his recital with books one and two of Ligeti’s Études (there is a third book which remained unfinished at the composer’s death in 2006).  The first two books contain fourteen études and, as Mr. Denk explained, the last of these was considered, even by Ligeti himself, to be unplayable by an unaided human.  Denk’s traversal of the other thirteen was rhythmically and tonally alive, secure, and tossed off with a  remarkable sense of freedom from technical struggle.  Mr. Denk has internalized these unremittingly complex pieces to an amazing degree.  He still plays them from the score — more of a security blanket than a necessity, I suspect, since they are for all practical purposes unreadable from the page — but he’s clearly not bound to the printed notes.

After all that paradoxical ease in the Études — the result, to be sure, of a staggering amount of work — the six pieces of Brahms’ Op. 118 could have used more struggle.  Not in the technical sense, but in mining their depths for the intensely emotional content they hold.  It was all a bit charming and gemütlich, even the Paganini Variations which were also taken at tempos that occasionally flirted with pandemonium.  The enthusiastic response brought out two encores, and Denk took the term literally.  He repeated one of the Ligeti Etudes and the Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2 of Brahms.  You have to admire all that hard work, but really — he never heard of the Spinning Song?