Fearless pianist Denk delivers

01.31.10
Jeremy Denk
Twin Cities Pioneer Press

By Rob Hubbard

Jeremy Denk loves a challenge. This is a pianist who once played Charles Ives' notoriously difficult "Concord" Sonata on the same program as the multi-headed hydra of Beethoven sonatas, the "Hammerklavier." So it would be understandable if you mistook him for a musical mountain climber bent on conquest.

But Denk isn't just a thrill junkie intent on performing superhuman feats. He's a masterful musician who not only wishes to come to the deepest understanding of the composers he interprets, but wants to bring audiences along with him. Those who attended Denk's Sunday afternoon Chopin Society recital were encouraged to grab hold of the rope and join him in climbing two daunting peaks of the piano repertoire, Robert Schumann's "Davidsbundlertanze" and J.S. Bach's "Goldberg" Variations. By concert's end, the standing and cheering crowd at St. Paul's Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center clearly felt following this seemingly fearless pianist to have been worth the effort.

But they were also, perhaps, giving themselves a hand for making it through a musical marathon like the "Goldberg" Variations. It's a work as complex as a PhD-level mathematical theorem, yet it also offers what may be the most detailed portrait of, arguably, music's greatest mind. In Denk's talented hands, Bach's 30 variations seemed like 30 distinctly individual poems, sharply contrasting in tone from one to the next. Themes would dance around and atop one another in layered fugues, then become mellifluous and meditative as if falling into a kind of sad exhaustion.

While Bach's variations give a listener's head a serious workout, Schumann's "Davidsbundlertanze" reaches for the heart as only that quintessential Romantic could.A set of dances from relatively early in the composer's career, they're something of a battle royal between the brightest and darkest aspects of his personality. Denk conveyed these internal arguments eloquently, eventually brokering a kind of peace built around bittersweet reflection.

But this pianist's most endearing quality is his palpable love for the music. He performed these taxing pieces (entirely from memory, incidentally) not to be showy, although he was certainly that. No, Denk is an artist who gets the "why" of the works as well as one could hope for, and Sunday's audience came away knowing more about Schumann and Bach than any biography could tell them.