Pianist Jeremy Denk at the Terrace Theater

Jeremy Denk
The Washington Post

By Anne Midgette

Jeremy Denk has become known as a smart pianist. He has done this with a combination of excellent playing -- sensitive, thoughtful, engaging -- and writing: His blog, "Think Denk," gives more insights into music and its practice than most professional writing about the field, often delivered with the deadpan mien and humor of a really good stand-up comic.

Denk is also getting known for his collaborations with the violinist Joshua Bell; he appeared with him in Thursday night's "Live From Lincoln Center" broadcast, and he will play with him at Strathmore Hall on Feb. 9. On Saturday afternoon, however, he was alone at the Terrace Theater, courtesy of Washington Performing Arts Society. In his solo appearances, Denk tends to push the "smart pianist" concept to the brink of outrageousness: Last season, he juxtaposed Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" and Charles Ives's "Concord" sonatas, two of the most formidable works in the piano literature, on a single program, a feat so extreme that to musicians it sounds almost like the set-up to a joke -- though people laugh with Denk, not at him. (He played the program at Wolf Trap in November 2008.)

His program on Saturday was slightly less in-your-face, though not much less ambitious. It ranged from a Bach toccata to Ives's less-known first sonata, from Liszt at his showiest (transcriptions of Berlioz and Meyerbeer) to Schumann at his most opaque (the "Davidsbündlertänze," a title which requires a disproportionate amount of explanation to translate, and which describes a piece made up of 18 vignettes, none of them very dancelike). And the playing certainly lived up to Denk's reputation, from its intelligence down to the deadpan humor as Denk's fingers led the Bach toccata (BWV 912, in D) through a boisterous outburst while his face expressed slight bemusement at their presumption.

If the "smart" appellation is misleading, it's because it conjures up the notion of a quasi-academic approach, and Denk's is anything but that: His strength is bringing music to life. The Bach, indeed, was so idiosyncratic and narrative and filled with drama as to sound suspiciously theatrical, as if Bach -- here's a radical notion -- were about content rather than simply a master of exquisite, brilliant form.

This approach augured well for the Ives, in whch Denk's sure hand and storyteller's sensibility created a smooth path through a conglomerate work larded with nuggets of hymn tunes and rags. Having laid out the essential story line of the piece ("the only piano sonata about a Connecticut farming family") in program notes that made the reader eager to hear the work ("Ives was always good at depicting the moment when the party goes over the cliff, the moment when you should probably send everyone home; this has never endeared him to a certain kind of classical music enthusiast"), Denk bore out every bit of that promise in his strong, fluid playing. It's notable that he projects such quiet assurance, given his ability to tear into the keyboard in repeated wild assaults before returning to serenity, grasping the frail sweet echo of a melody at the end of the first movement like a photo of childhood snatched from a tangle of dark sound.

It says a lot about the program's intensity that the Liszt transcriptions acted as a palate-cleanser (Denk played them after the intermission) rather than a tour de force. Denk closed the afternoon with the Davidsbündlertänze, instead. Like the young pianist Di Wu, who also played Liszt and the same Schumann piece on her D.C. recital the week before, Denk used the contrast to showcase both emotional and technical range. He is at his best when he is most quiet; a few of his more dramatic physical touches (a toss of the head, a wave of the head) were followed by a microsecond of imprecision in the music.

He is also at his best in music that fully engages him. The Liszt, in his hands, became delightful anecdotes, like Saki stories; but in Ives -- to which he returned with his encore, the "Alcotts" movement of the "Concord" sonata -- he offered an entire world.