From disorder to order, in search of ‘wild beauties’

Jeremy Denk
The Boston Globe

By Jeremy Eichler

The fast-rising American pianist Jeremy Denk returned to Boston on Sunday, once again with a sprawling keyboard masterpiece in each pocket. His last recital at the Gardner Museum paired Ives’s “Concord’’ Sonata with Beethoven’s magisterial “Hammerklavier’’ (Op. 106). This time it was Ligeti’s fierce Etudes paired with Bach’s sublimely virtuosic “Goldberg’’ Variations.

So many recitalists these days mix old and modern music, but few have Denk’s gift for stacking both halves of the deck with works of such iconic grandeur, and then pulling off the mammoth recital as if it’s all in a day’s work. Sunday’s performance at MassArt’s Pozen Center — the Gardner Museum’s temporary concert space — was a tour de force.

Describing the diverse influences behind his two daunting books of Etudes, Ligeti once cited fractal geometry, the rhythmic asymmetries of African music, the player-piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow, and even jazz (specifically Thelonius Monk and Bill Evans). Listening to the Etudes, the various inspirations are audible to a degree but more often they are consumed by the blazing individuality of these short pieces, each of which explores a discreet set of pianistic or compositional ideas with ferocious concentration and intensity.

Before sitting down to play on Sunday, Denk spoke briefly to the audience of his reasons for pairing these two works. He was drawn, he said, to the contrast between the pristine order of Bach’s music and the pristine disorder of Ligeti’s (“mathematics after chaos theory,’’ he called it). Despite this contrast, both Bach and Ligeti had attempted to push keyboard virtuosity to its outer limits. They also shared, in Denk’s words, an “outrageous naughtiness and occasional perversity’’ in their approach, as well as an intuitive feel for “the wild beauties’’ that were possible at the piano.

Opening with the Ligeti, Denk showed himself deft at summoning those wild beauties, teasing out the mysterious shapes and alluring colors in this strange and wonderful keyboard menagerie. From the hectically scurrying etude, appropriately titled “Désordre’’ (“Disorder’’), to the notorious “L’escalier du diable,’’ in which the composer calls for a thundering volume marked by eight fortes — “ffffffff’’ — Denk proved he had the technique and courage to plunge into the heart of the Ligetian storm.

But beyond the music’s howling extremes, Denk also seemed determined to show just how coolly detailed and vividly imagined Ligeti’s miniatures could be. “Automne à Varsovie’’ gathered its force in precisely calibrated waves, the air gradually thickening with downward-swooping chromatic lines. And an impish wit flickered in the corners of “Touches bloquées,’’ in which Ligeti calls for one hand to strike keys already being depressed by the other, as well as in “Fém,’’ whose stutter-stepping rhythms I had never heard played quite so jauntily.

In “Cordes à Vide’’ and the jazzy “Arc-en-ciel,’’ Denk floated a kind of soft-edged, vaporous piano sound limned at times with a surprising tenderness. It called to mind the tone he brings to the rare moments of repose in his recent recording of Ives’s “Concord’’ Sonata. You could almost picture the sharp and severe Ligeti, dropping by for a calm lunch at the Alcotts.

On the second half of Sunday’s program, after all the unpredictability and violent force in Ligeti’s music, the opening Aria of Bach’s “Goldberg’’ Variations, with its measured gait and wise lyricism, arrived like a balm. Even on its own terms, the pristine architecture of Bach’s music holds a mysterious power to ground a listener in the faith and teleological certainties of an earlier era. This proved all the more true after an hour spent touring Ligeti’s modern landscape of fractured forms and aural quicksand.

Denk’s own reading of the “Goldbergs’’ was full of personal flourishes and pleasing details all within an organically flowing sense of the whole. Playing on a modern Steinway grand he made no conflicted nods to the music’s earlier harpsichordal incarnations, instead seeming to relish the instrument’s ample resources for coloration, legato lines, and tonal variety. Certain moments seemed to evoke later keyboard worlds of Chopin or Schubert, not as willfully anachronistic touches but as if Denk were pointing out the ways in which Bach was in fact the father of them all.

The rich inner life of this reading also came through in the rapt intensity of Denk’s delivery from the stage. He gave the impression of conducting an extended private dialogue with Bach, by turns joyful and melancholic, exalted and mischievous. You were invited to listen in.