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Pianist Denk shows originality

10.30.09
Jeremy Denk
Philadelphia Inquirer

By David Patrick Stearns

No pianist invites debate like Jeremy Denk. And in the genteel-to-a-fault classical music world, his playing is a much-needed stimulant to audiences who too often hear "me too" interpretations. But his path isn't easy for anybody.

In his Wednesday Kimmel Center program, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, he played Charles Ives, but the Piano Sonata No. 1 - seldom heard even by that composer's standards - as well as Mozart in the spirit of Bach and Chopin without the usual sentiments.

With a supreme command of the piano allowing endlessly varied color, touch, and chord voicing, all possibilities are seemingly open to him. And all possibilities are imaginable, thanks to a fine intellect expressed as articulately as by a great orator, but from a temperament that's not iconoclastic as much as it is contrarian. That part of his personality won him a place in Democrat Heaven when his blog Think Denk carried a hilarious fictional discussion of Beethoven's "Hammerklaver" sonata with Sarah Palin. But in music, Denk is easy to respect for his originality, hard to adore for his absence of Dionysian heat.

Given his past triumphs with Ives' Piano Sonata No. 2 ("Concord"), his programming of the also-formidable first sonata makes sense. His spoken introduction was extremely elucidative: He played long-forgotten hymns on which the piece is based, explaining how Ives used them in reverse theme-and-variations form, delivering the abstraction first and later the source from which it grew.

Ives clearly selected source material as much for its cultural significance as its musical possibilities, the power of which has been demonstrated from Brahms to Shostakovich to Corigliano - but successfully only when the audience doesn't need to know the nonmusical significance to appreciate the music. With Ives' Piano Sonata No. 1, the cultural basis of his music has to be in your bones if it is to be parsed, even in a performance as thorough as Denk's.

Mozart's Piano Sonata in F (K. 533, with the K. 494 rondo) benefited from Denk's emphasis on the music's baroque-ish counterpoint but not at the expense of the melody's legato - qualities that boded well for the Chopin. But that composer's Piano Sonata No. 3 emerged with a glistening coolness and disregard for melodic details. Gesture was projected at the expense of lyricism - gutsy indeed, though what's the point?