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Jeremy Denk’s recital showcases pianist’s insightful artistry

Jeremy Denk
Boston Classical Review

By Aaron Keebaugh

Pianist Jeremy Denk has earned a reputation for an intelligent and insightful approach to repertoire and programming. Boston audiences are already familiar with his adventurous, wide-ranging recitals at the Gardner Museum.

In his Celebrity Series debut at Jordan Hall Saturday night, he was in top form, offering reflective and tenderly hewn readings of works by Bach, Beethoven, Bartók, and Liszt.  Each work on Saturday night’s program conveyed Denk’s pearly tone, crystalline technique, and his arresting sensitivity to the musical phrase.

His approach was delightfully suited to the collection of Liszt pieces on the program, which offered darkness, light, and every shade in between. Liszt’s Prelude on Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, a mournful and thought-provoking exploration of a descending chromatic bass line Bach used in his Cantata No. 12, showcased Denk’s dark and powerful piano tone.

Similar moments of reverence and rapture filled his rendering of two works from Liszt’s “Italie,” the second of the composer’s travelogues in music, Années de pèlerinage. The Sonetta 123 del Petrarca is a yearning portrayal of Petrarch’s sonnet “I beheld angelic grace on earth.” And Après une lecture du Dante, an expansive fantasy exploring themes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, took listeners on a sonic journey through heaven and hell.

Throughout, Denk performed with poetic grace and with deft handling of the music’s show-stopping filigree. Denk followed with an impassioned performance of Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, capturing to good effect the orchestral grandeur of the original.

The pianist opened the concert with Bartók’s Piano Sonata, Sz. 80. This bold yet concise three-movement work is particularly known for its barbarism, hard driving rhythms, and folk-dance melodies that clash in modal and bitonal harmonies.

But Denk, with a solid but not overstated touch, performed this modern work with welcome color and nuance. With fine attention to balance, he brought out both the stately and witty sections of the first movement. The pianist approached the second movement almost as an elegy where the simple, repeated-note melody rang clear over the heavy dissonances, giving listeners a taste for the depth and sonic beauty in Bartók’s score. He performed the final movement’s cascading lines, which swirl in a whirlwind of polyrhythm, with energy and poise.

To open the second half of the program, Denk offered a charming and sweetly phrased rendition of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, the last coupling from the first book of the Well-Tempered Klavier. By extending the cadences and altering dynamics ever so slightly, Denk enabled the fugue’s themes to sing expressively, which added shape and even a touch of drama to the music.

The pianist closed with a dramatic performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, No. 32, Op. 111.  The last and, arguably, one of his most austere works in the genre, Beethoven’s two-movement work bears the imprint of Bach’s craft, made manifest in a churning fugue in its dark, declarative and contemplative opening movement. Most impressive were the variations on an Arietta theme in the second of the two movements, which Denk played with utmost precision. He struck a fine balance between the staid, but poetic theme and the animated swing-style passages of the central variations.

As Denk notes and explores in his own writings, music is a living and breathing art, and he lived up to that axiom Saturday night with performances that make him a musician’s pianist in the fullest sense of the phrase.