Exploring the Language That Speaks the Inexpressible

03.25.13
Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

Jeremy Denk, Pianist, at Carnegie Hall

By Steve Smith

Listening to the pianist Jeremy Denk play, you never doubt that he is someone who thinks about music deeply and rather a lot. It’s not that you sense that he fusses overmuch about tempos and dynamics, or that he’s out to demonstrate his awesome cleverness through programming juxtapositions. Rather, what Mr. Denk’s playing conveys most is an inclusive consideration of where each piece came from, what it reflects about its composer and how music connects to a life’s broader concerns.

What you don’t get from Mr. Denk is a sense of a butterfly flitting through the canon, briefly alighting on some major piece to test its flavor before fluttering on to the next. Among the works he played at Carnegie Hall on Friday night, one, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C minor, had appeared in several previous recitals and on his Nonesuch debut CD. Another, Liszt’s “Après une Lecture du Dante,” was what Mr. Denk paired with that Beethoven work in a memorable 2010 Mostly Mozart Festival recital.

“Mr. Denk, clearly, is a pianist you want to hear, no matter what he performs,” I wrote on that occasion. Now I’ll add that he is a pianist whose fresh insights in familiar territory warrant continued acquaintance.

Again, colossal interpretations conveyed the sense of composers grappling with the ineffable, inventing new vocabulary to express the inexpressible. If the terrors in Beethoven’s stormy first movement were less overwhelming at Carnegie than they had been in the tiny Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center, the rapt Arietta had a frisson of added awe: a humble utterance lofted prayerfully into a void.

Mr. Denk opened the recital with a demonically festive rendition of Bartok’s Piano Sonata, with chattering dance rhythms and low notes that rang like gongs. He framed “Après une Lecture du Dante” with more Liszt: “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” based on a stern descending bass line by Bach; the grace-infused Sonetto del Petrarca No. 123; and the reverently rumbling transcription of “Isoldes Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”

The concert’s second half opened with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor from “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Book 1, which Mr. Denk played with a subtlety that approached disappearance. The prelude had a breath and pulse less perceptible than palpable; in the fugue Mr. Denk deftly calibrated his dynamic intensity across the work’s full span.

After the concluding Beethoven, thunderous applause elicited two encores: a genial Variation No. 13 from Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, and a keenly wrought account of Brahms’s wistful Intermezzo in A (Op. 118, No. 2).