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Diving Into the Strange, Retrieving Its Beauty
The New York Times
By Anthony Tommasini
The pianist Jeremy Denk recently picked up the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize to go along with the MacArthur Foundation fellowship that he received last year. This is what you call being on a roll. These honors were in recognition not just of his excellence as a pianist but also of his adventurousness as an artist. Both qualities were on display on Saturday night, when Mr. Denk played a recital at Washington Irving High School, part of the very affordable Peoples’ Symphony Concerts series.
On paper, it was hard to see any thematic link between the diverse pieces on this program: a Mozart piano sonata; six of Ligeti’s eight Études for Piano, Book II; “A Voluntary” by the Renaissance English composer William Byrd; and Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze.”
By the end, though, a common thread Mr. Denk may have had in mind had come through: These are all wondrously strange works. While playing with his trademark vitality and elegance, Mr. Denk relished the strangeness in every piece, starting with Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 15 in F, which, believe it or not, was almost the strangest of all.
The oddities of this engrossing 1788 sonata are masked by its deceptively jolly surface. The music keeps flying off the skids, erupting with spiraling passagework and taking jerky detours. Mr. Denk played the sonata with pristine clarity, ebullience and just a touch of coyness, which made the curious bits even more fascinating.
Before playing the Ligeti études, which have become a Denk specialty (he recorded them brilliantly), he gave a humorously descriptive spoken introduction. While these technically daunting pieces are musically complex, he said, they are also playful. The title of “Galamb Borong,” Mr. Denk explained, comes from two Hungarian words that make no sense together, but were intended to sound vaguely Indonesian, since the étude evokes gamelan music, as was clear from his restless, shimmering performance. He gave a demonic, yet mischievous account of “Der Zauberlehrling” (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) and was exhilarating in “L’Escalier du Diable” (“The Devil’s Staircase”), which is like a hard-driving toccata.
After intermission, Mr. Denk teased out the quirks in the Byrd voluntary, which seemed here a curious cross between a fantasy and a set of ornate variations. And talk about the fantastical: Mr. Denk ended with a rhapsodic and poetic performance of the Schumann work, a 40-minute suite of 18 pieces, less an actual dance suite than a metamorphosis of the dance. Some pieces are dreamy and suffused with inner pain; others are wild eyed, almost unhinged.
It is always good to see important musicians making time to perform in the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, a series that began in 1900 and had been run for years by the manager Frank Salomon. At a time when classical music is facing challenges, the mission of the venture proposes a simple answer: If you keep concerts affordable, people will come, and the music will take care of the rest.
Mostly older people seem to take advantage of the series. Where are the younger people who complain that high ticket prices keep them away from classical music?