“Versatile Virtuoso”* Jeremy Denk’s Hotly-Anticipated New Album – Jeremy Denk Plays Ives – Is Released Today

10.12.10
Jeremy Denk
21C Media Group

From 21C Media Group

“Ives wants to recreate the raw experience of music-making, something unfiltered, and beyond all your piano lessons… . While driving me crazy, he reminds me why I play the piano at all.” – Jeremy Denk

If there is one composer in whose works Jeremy Denk has inspired nothing but frank and heartfelt praise, it is thorny American experimentalist Charles Ives.  Denk’s recital programs have long featured not only Ives’s famous and monumental “Concord” Sonata but also the far less familiar Sonata No. 1, impressing critics with “thrilling performances” (Anthony Tommasini, New York Times) that offer “an entire world” (Anne Midgette, Washington Post).  Now the pianist’s celebrated Ives interpretations have finally been committed to disc; released today, October 12, Jeremy Denk plays Ives is available in wide release.

In accompanying booklet notes that remind us why the Washington Post’s Joan Reinthaler found Denk’s “the most interesting and well-written program notes [she had] ever read,” the pianist asks: “Why Ives?”  After all, while recognized as an important and influential American original who anticipated many musical innovations to come, Charles Ives (1874-1954) is best known for the dissonance and seeming chaos of his sound world, in which disparate elements are not so much juxtaposed as superimposed, apparently jostling for space.  And yet, as Denk explains,

“It’s not [the] so-called historical importance that makes me love the music.  There is a terrific tenderness emanating from this dissonant, difficult music: a tenderness for experiences of childhood, for the ‘uneducated,’ fervid hymn-singing of camp meetings, for the silliness of ragtime, for the quaint wistful corners of ballads, and on and on.  There is a correspondingly enormous wit: the love of crazy musical mishap, a love of syncopation, disjunction, mash-up; the merger of opposites.  He recreates, almost like Proust, a whole world for us: the musical world of America in the last part of the 19th century.  He evokes a tremendous nostalgia for that world, while making it alive again.”

It is Denk’s ability to synthesize this emotional connection to the music with more intellectual analysis – not to mention full technical mastery of the material – that sets his interpretations apart.

While Ives’s second piano sonata has achieved so much greater fame than the first, taken together, Denk realizes, “The two piano sonatas are wonderful representations of the two productive decades of his composing life.  The first, with its hymn-improvisations and its ragtime dances, represents an earlier, more variegated Ives,” while “the famous ‘Concord’ Sonata represents the summit of Ives’ maturity, an attempt to consolidate his musical (and extramusical) thinking…in a huge statement.”  When Denk revived the five-movement First Sonata (1909) at last season’s Ojai Music Festival, the Los Angeles Times’s Mark Swed dubbed him a “hero of the Festival,” adding: “If he had done nothing more than rescue Ives’ First Piano Sonata from obscurity, which he did in his glorious Saturday morning recital, I would say the weekend would have been worthwhile.”  Rita Moran, reporting for the Ventura County Star, shared Swed’s enthusiasm, concluding that the “idiosyncratic Ives rarely seemed so relevant…and [Denk’s] joy in playing was infectious.”

Yet it is with the notorious Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860” (c.1915), comprising philosophical portraits of Ives’s four famous New England transcendentalist friends, that Denk established himself as a leading exponent of the composer’s work.  Tommasini, writing for the New York Times, recognized his special feel for it:

“Many pianists emphasize the volatile craziness of ‘Emerson.’  Mr. Denk conveyed the music’s teeming energy, while also projecting the thematic thread, however fractured, that runs through this movement.  He somehow made the mood swings seem inevitable, from the dissonant, contrapuntally convoluted outbursts to the pensive passages with hints of hymn tunes.  During the raucous ‘Hawthorne,’ the homebound tenderness of ‘The Alcotts,’ and the metaphysical musings of ‘Thoreau,’ Mr. Denk brought out both the sonata’s radicalism and nostalgia, yet never let the music seem simply eccentric.  Ives emerged here as a cagey master.”

As Reinthaler observed in the Washington Post, the pianist’s ability to draw “both explosive power and sublime poetry” from the work becomes all the more remarkable when one considers that the sonata “must score way up there on the notes-per-page scale”; yet “Denk has the chops to muscle his way through [it] without breaking a sweat.”  She continues:

“What made his performance so compelling, however, were the intelligence, lyricism, and transparency that illuminated everything he touched.  His attention to detail only heightened the unfolding drama – one unexpected staccato in the midst of a cascade of notes, a lyrical melody able to assert itself within a welter of hyperactivity… . Denk has the kind of touch on the keys that seems to draw the sound from the piano.”

Fellow Washington Post writer Midgette was likewise awed by his performance:

“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. … In Ives…he offered an entire world.”

Committing such passion to disc is no mean feat – requiring Denk, like the composer himself, to bring off that “classic Ivesian thing: to bring beauty out of chaos, and vice versa.”  And yet the pianist inspires our confidence; as Alex Ross remarked in the New Yorker before Denk’s Carnegie Hall “Concord” performance, “Prior concerts have suggested that Denk has the chops, the brains, and the heart to pull it off.”

 * Denver Post

Available at itunes and Amazon

Jeremy Denk plays Ives
Charles Ives: Piano Sonata No. 1 (1909)
Charles Ives: Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-60” (c. 1915)
 
CD release: October 12
jeremydenk.net