The Pianist Is Casual in All Things but Music

08.30.09
Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

If classical music is dying, as we’ve been hearing for years, why are so many rock clubs suddenly presenting it? And why are so many people, with the young outnumbering the old, coming to hear it?

The Highline Ballroom, which started a piano recital series this summer, was comfortably full when Jeremy Denk performed there on Saturday. Mr. Denk, a thoughtful pianist who has always seemed most at home in early-19th-century repertory — and a tuxedo — turns out to have broader tastes, which he put to good use here.

Dressed for the occasion in a gray T-shirt, black jeans and running shoes, and given to chatting amiably between works about the music to be performed, Mr. Denk began with a Bach Partita and an Ives Sonata, hitting the 19th century only after the intermission, with works byChopin and Liszt. (As originally announced, the program was also to have included works by Ligeti and Debussy, but these were dropped, apparently because the Highline had to set up for a later show.)

As casual as his dress and demeanor were, he made no concessions in his playing of the Partita No. 3 (BWV 827). His is a modern conception of Bach: it takes into account scholarly ideas about Bach’s tempos and the importance of keeping the counterpoint transparent, but also draws fully on the flexibility of the piano’s timbres and dynamics.

In the Sarabande he made the top line sing with a graceful legato, and in the fast movements — particularly the Corrente and the closing Gigue — he gave hard-driven performances that mined the music’s energy without making it sound breathless or overworked.

The Ives Sonata No. 1 was an odd but welcome choice. Heard much less frequently than its successor, the “Concord” Sonata — itself hardly a war horse — Sonata No. 1 is a work that Ives tinkered with between 1909 and 1916, and it catches him in one of the amusingly perverse moods that he made into his trademark.

The first, third and fifth movements sketch a nostalgic home scene, with quotations from late-19th-century hymns and popular songs, skewered with dissonances and comic melodrama. The opening movement, for example, moved back and forth between sentimentality and chaos in ways that made it sound like the perfect score for a Buster Keaton film. The second and forth movements, by contrast, were hymn tunes reconfigured as full-throttle ragtime.

Mr. Denk gave the Ives an explosive reading. He also offered a poetic, passionate rendering of Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie (Op. 61) and closed the evening with a suitably muscular performance of Liszt’s splashy, endurance-testing “Rhapsodie Espagnole.”

The Highline is a comfortable place to hear a recital, but if it is to continue experiments with classical music (this was the last such concert listed on its Web site), some details should be seen to. Stacking plates during the performance is a generally bad idea. Programs would be helpful. And although subtle amplification may be necessary, it must be done sensitively: Mr. Denk’s piano was pumped through big speakers that thickened its textures and robbed the playing of some nuance.