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You Seem Sad, Janacek. Cheer Me Up, Schubert: Jeremy Denk Knits a Dialogue in His 92nd Street Y Recital

11.16.14
Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

By David Allen   

Jeremy Denk, a pianist who plays by different rules to maximize personal expression, Saturday at the 92nd Street Y

“Oh, there are loads of rules,” Nick Hornby wrote of mixtapes in the novel “High Fidelity.” Jeremy Denk predictably broke them all in a series of piano works by Janacek and Schubert in his very satisfying recital at the 92nd Street Y on Saturday.

Mr. Denk called it a “mixtape” in a brief program note, but a “shuffle” from the stage. They imply different things, as do words perhaps more apt, like “suite” or “collage.” Anyway, the idea came from two C flats strewn across nearly a century, one nagging at an E flat major piece from Janacek’s “On an Overgrown Path” (Book II, No. 1), another more naturally part of a tiny Schubert Ländler in E flat minor (D. 366, No. 12). From those beginnings, a half-hour journey took in six more pieces from the Janacek books, interwoven with digressions on Ländler and two of the six “Moments Musicaux” (D. 780).

Schubert and Janacek do share moods of tension and ambivalence, even if, to my ear, Schumann has more in common with the latter. Mixes are all about transitions, and they worked here, particularly the last, from the silly Schubert C major “Grazer Galopp” (D. 925) to the devastated C minor of the last of Janacek’s pieces (Book II, No. 5). But it cohered, because Schubert was at his least fretful under Mr. Denk’s fingers, waltzing along for the most part and constantly undercut by unexpected phrasing or harmonic emphasis. All that gave Janacek’s hollow desperation space for entrancing.

If the rest of the program was less inventive, it was a reminder still that Mr. Denk is no ordinary pianist. He plays by different rules — someone has to — by aiming not for simple control or technical wizardry but for the most direct and personal expression. Take Mozart’s Rondo in A minor (K. 511), here a mad scene without the release of a denouement.

Idiosyncratic? Perhaps, but you know it’s Mr. Denk, and you know he’s going to make you laugh. He revealed an innate wit as amusing as anything in Beethoven in Haydn’s C major Sonata (Hob. XVI:50), in form and in phrasing. Schumann’s “Carnaval” was echt-Denk, too, insouciant and impulsive as ideas ran amok in “Arlequin” and “Pantalon et Colombine,” dreamy and visionary in brief mirages like “Eusebius” and “Chiarina.” And the same combination makes him a fine Ivesian, as shown by “The Alcotts” from the “Concord” Sonata, an unexpected encore.