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Denk stages a composers' conversation

Jeremy Denk
Philadelphia Inquirer

By Peter Dobrin

Mozart isn't who you think he is. Jeremy Denk said as much in comments to Sunday afternoon's audience at the American Philosophical Society. But really, the pianist needn't have uttered a word. In this most recent appearance with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, his playing made the point loud and clear.

Denk is an emotional player. He tends to hear contrasting material as a date with a severe mood swing, and he manages to infuse archness or sow gnawing doubt about the composer's sincerity into unsuspecting phrases, as he did throughout Schumann's Carnaval.

You might not have agreed with all of his views. Mozart's Piano Sonata in A minor (K. 310) was highly stylized, especially in the second movement, and if some aspects flirted with overthinking, the approach also kept the music from becoming unduly prettified. Refinement was not the goal, and the chance-taking in the last movement paid off beautifully.

This sonata, paired here with the less often heard F major (K. 533), built the case for the composer as an unstable element. Surprising harmonic twists and turns in the second movement make Mozart seem unmoored from his time, a lone traveler who had somehow never gotten the memo on certain conventions of the day. Denk let these moments sneak up on listeners by cloaking the entire movement in a warmer, rounder sound than he brought to the rest of the piece.

Along with Mitsuko Uchida, Denk is one of Schumann's most questioning admirers. He followed a volatile exploration of the Carnaval with an encore from Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze ("zart und singend") that recalled his visit here in 2012. But he led into Carnaval with three études from György Ligeti's Book II - "En Suspens," "Galamb Borong," and "L'escalier du diable"- and, in a way, these made for the most fascinating moments of the recital.

Drawing on jazz, Bartók, and perhaps even Schumann, they had a unifying effect on the entire program. The title of "L'escalier du diable" ("the devil's staircase") refers to a mathematical function, and turns the piano into a percussive computer spitting out equations at a pace threatening to veer out of control. If Denk was drawing parallels to similar aspects of Schumann, this was no surprise. In retrospect, it made the "presto" of Mozart's K. 310 a revelation.