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Piano Forte

04.01.13
Jeremy Denk
Vanity Fair

By Matthew Guerrieri

For all his self-effacing urbanity, Jeremy Denk is a frontiersman. The 42-year-old pianist, who earned a doctorate at the Juilliard School, has a way with some of the most encyclopedic works in the repertoire, music that catalogues the known world before striking out into the wilderness. His first recording was of the massive, Whitman-esque piano sonatas of Charles Ives. His latest pairs the sundry virtuosity of György Ligeti’s piano études with the final, untrammeled piano sonata of Ludwig van Beethoven, his Opus 111—a work that also culminates his March 22 recital at Carnegie Hall. For Denk, the reward is bringing out the valedictions within such manifestos. “What they all share is this tenderness,” he says, “a tenderness at the edge of the universe, where one world is going away and another one is coming in.”

Like a handful of similar polymaths, Denk is also a writer of free-range acuity, in articles, reviews, and Think Denk, his online journal, a treasury of ruminations, both deep and daffy, on the nature of music and the adventures—and misadventures—of making it manifest. At the center of his curiosity are the gateways between music’s seemingly paradoxical layers: micro and macro, detail and whole, the transition from the close-up work of practice—“physics and housekeeping,” as he puts it—to the structural sweep of a performance. Playing and writing are disparate tasks but similar challenges. “I can’t decide which is more frustrating and more neurosis-inducing,” he says. A typical deflection, but next time you see him, he’s off in the wilds, surveying, exploring, adventuring.