Pianist excels in reshaping classical music

Jeremy Denk
Denver Post

By Kyle MacMillan

Pianist Jeremy Denk epitomizes a 21st-century classical musician at the top of his game.

He understands that just playing isn't enough anymore. Performers have to be willing to promote and help reshape classical music as it slips ever further from the cultural mainstream.

Denk is intelligent, inquisitive and tech-savvy, writing one of the liveliest and best-read classical blogs, and he has a keen understanding of the need to inject newness into this sometimes moribund field.

But, of course, none of that would matter if he didn't have the artistry to back it up. And, make no mistake, he does.

In his Denver recital debut Wednesday evening in DU's Gates Concert Hall, under the auspices of Friends of Chamber Music, he demonstrated extraordinary technical mastery, playing with an unusual sense of engagement, even relish.

It's not surprising that Denk, who received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1998, has become so much in demand. He is, quite simply, one of the best pianists of his generation.

He was scheduled to play Book 1 and 2 of the Études by Gyorgy Ligeti, who died in 2006 and is increasingly being recognized as one of the great composers of the later half of the 20th century.

But for reasons that were not explained, he chose to play just five of the six etudes in Book 1, still more than enough to get a sense of these intense, disoriently chromatic 1980s works, each based on a different experimental starting point.

Quirky, unruly, even almost alien at times, they often spin out of control, with manic runs that seem to chase infinity, as Denk suggested in his insightful program notes. Yet at the same time, they are oddly meaningful and touching.

Denk captured their full sprawling complexity and handily overcame their daunting technical demands. It was a tremendous performance in every way.

These etudes, as well as the other works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Liszt and Ludwig van Beethoven, all pushed the bounds of the keyboard, and hearing them together raised intriguing questions about what is avant garde and what is traditional.