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Pianist Jeremy Denk with the Chamber Music Society

Jeremy Denk
Philadelphia Inquirer

Though this cannot be proved, Jeremy Denk probably holds the record for playing the most notes in a two-hour Philadelphia piano recital - Monday's program, with three of the chunkier sonatas written over the last century. Denk's advocacy wasn't always thoughtful, but never was there a note too many.

Presented by Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the recital was built around Charles Ives' Mount Rushmore-like Concord Sonata in a performance that's the most fully realized I've heard in concert or on recordings, preceded by early Elliott Carter and late Leon Kirchner.

That didn't have to happen. Denk never pounds, but even Bach leaves him more enthralled with the physicality of the playing than concerned for the sound world that listeners need to parse dense scores.

Carter's 1946 Piano Sonata can be a Coplandesque walk in the park - when undersold (if only a bit) by the performer. The program notes discussed how revolutionary the piece was when first written. It's not now, and need not be to assume relevance. Denk, however, seemed to shove it back toward the cutting edge with bright, metallic sonorities. And who knows what might have been revealed in a more yielding approach to the emotional landscapes of Kirchner's 2003 Piano Sonata No. 2. Even so, the sonata is a major work of amazing vitality for the then-84-year-old composer.

The Ives sonata is a magnum opus (one of several) assembled from earlier works in four movements that are designated portraits of figures from Emerson to Thoreau, but feel more like Grandma Moses landscapes with much visual imagery alongside intellectual references to other composers. This performance stood apart from the others with Denk's ability to find shades of meaning in what are usually dense thickets of notes. You could say the piece is overwritten were it not for the thorny grandeur achieved not just with all the notes sounding, but with the accumulation of detail.

What set Denk above supervirtuosos like Marc-Andre Hamelin was the necessity of intelligent choice. Hamelin allows you to hear it all, and "all" is well into the sensory overload zone. Denk prioritized with a rightness that suggested he knew the piece's various levels even better than the composer, who mused about never having finished it. Another nice touch was the brief offstage flute solo in the final "Thoreau" movement - heard like a bird call from the next world. The first movement's viola solo was absent: It's ad-libbed, suggesting Ives wasn't so serious about it.