Pianist scales monuments

Jeremy Denk
Times Union

The boundaries between modernism and romanticism were blurred Tuesday night in the bold and unusual recital by pianist Jeremy Denk.
Performing at Union College, the 37-year-old American offered only two sonatas, but each is a doozy: Ives' "Concord" and Beethoven's "Hammerklavier." And his approach to each work was unexpected, applying a spacious romanticism to the Ives and highlighting the modern extremes in the Beethoven.

Proceeding in reverse chronological order, Denk opened with the Ives, which has been regarded as a monument of American music ever since its premiere in 1939. But that's often how it's been approached in performance, as a hard-faced stony monolith. Denk allowed the work to breathe and the wild diversity of Ives' writing benefited, especially in the most daunting and laden movement "Emerson."

Denk's fortes were particularly telling here -- resonant and confident, yet never demanding or overpowering.
Denk has a fluid grace at the keyboard and his body language can be fascinating, especially in the Ives. As if contemplating the material at hand, his head turns this way and that, sometimes nearly fully facing the audience, or with his chin raised toward the ceiling. Denk's arms even flapped a bit in the lively "Hawthorne" movement.

Audience members' heads turned this way and that during the final movement of the Ives, "Thoreau," when the sound of a flute arrived from offstage. This element of the piece is often dropped, but it's a lovely haunting effect. Tara Helen O'Connor gave the handful of lines a warm and reedy tone.

Where the Ives is a crazy quilt of musical Americana with its seams all showing through proudly, the Beethoven is a fabric woven of one piece, though still chaotic in texture and color. Denk gave it a more in-your-face reading, with the opening Allegro full of grander and crisper playing than anywhere in the Ives.

The Adagio felt like a nightmare in pastel hues, so well did Denk plumb its miserable depths. Perhaps it was the long passages of wandering harmonies that gave it such an arduous quality, but the memory of Ives' climax happy writing also contributed.

The weatherman's terminology of "a wintry mix" well describes the windy and stormy finale of the Beethoven.
Like Ives, Beethoven copped out on resolving some of his grandest conundrums, and instead just cuts to a quiet chorale. Denk handled the evening's many contradictions with aplomb, and offered as an encore a reprise of "The Alcotts," Ives at his most tender.