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Fleet Fingers Illustrating Eclectic Influences on Composers From Bach to Ligeti
The New York Times
By Vivien Schweitzer
The choice of encores reveals much about a musician’s programming aesthetic. Instead of a popular bonbon, the pianist Jeremy Denk rewarded the audience at his recital at the 92nd Street Y on Saturday evening with a thoughtful interpretation of “The Alcotts,” the third movement of Ives’s “Concord” Sonata.
Musicians often focus on one or several composers at different stages in their careers, but Bach, Beethoven, Ligeti and Ives — the backbone of Mr. Denk’s recent recitals — are a more unusual combination. Mr. Denk has also recorded Ives, offering the first and second sonatas for his excellent debut album last year.
Ives quoted from eclectic sources in his sonatas, including Beethoven and American hymns. Ligeti also incorporated multiple influences in his études, including jazz; the complex polyphony of sub-Saharan African music; Chopin, Liszt and Debussy; and Nancarrow’s “Studies for Player Piano.” In addition, Ligeti’s études, virtuosic character pieces, were inspired by the composer’s inadequate keyboard technique.
Mr. Denk offered fleet-fingered renditions of the Book 1 Études after intermission, conveying the idiosyncratic character of each, including the jazz-hued Debussyian “Arc-en-Ciel” (“Rainbow”) and the haunting, toccatalike “Automne à Varsovie” (“Warsaw Autumn”).
The program opened with Bach’s Toccata in D (BWV 912) and Toccata in F sharp minor (BWV 910). I overheard audience members complaining during intermission that Mr. Denk’s rendition was too “self-indulgent,” but while he certainly maximized the piano’s capabilities in terms of dynamic contrast, he never sacrificed good taste. He played with clean articulation, warmth and power in both toccatas, his improvisatory flair illuminating their grandeur and dramatic scope.
In a recent post about program notes on his blog (jeremydenk.net/blog), Mr. Denk wrote: “I’ve never been a big fan of the ‘Imagine how revolutionary this piece was when it was written’ school of inspiration.’ For my money, it should be revolutionary now. (And it is.)”
Beethoven’s mystical Piano Sonata No. 32 (Op. 111), his last work in the genre, certainly still sounded revolutionary when Mr. Denk played it at the end of his program, surveying its profound and crazed moods with an apt blend of fierce attack and emotional potency. (The boogie-woogie rhythms of the final movement must have sounded downright bizarre to early-19th-century listeners.)
Mr. Denk also offered Beethoven’s infrequently performed Opus 35 “Eroica” Variations, one of his more than 20 sets of piano variations and a piece the composer considered one of his greatest musical works. Beethoven based this set on his theme for the ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus,” which he later recycled in the finale of his “Eroica” Symphony.
Given their fugal element, it made programmatic sense to play Beethoven’s Opus 35 after the Bach. As with the Ives, Mr. Denk found plenty of humor in his imaginative traversal of the 15 variations.