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A great stop for Jeremy Denk on way to Carnegie Hall

10.29.08
Jeremy Denk
Buffalo News

Pianist Jeremy Denk is on his way to Carnegie Hall — with Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier,” no less. Buffalo’s Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series managed to snag him on the way. Tuesday in Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Denk played a glorious, heavy program: the “Hammerklavier,” preceded by Schubert’s B flat sonata, D. 960.

The program was the result of a last-minute switch, and, with two sonatas from the same era and in the same key, it was a bit odd. But I loved hearing these two sonatas together, comparing and contrasting, reveling in their mercurial nature.

And the rest of the crowd seems to have agreed with me. I have never seen a more rapt audience.
Denk is an unusual pianist. He is intense but not introverted. He has a fine-tuned sense of timing and proportion, but he also pays exquisite, unhurried attention to the music’s details. That was clear from the first phrases of the Schubert, which were beautifully shaped.

If I had to single out the evening’s high point, I would say the slow movement of the Schubert. I have simply never heard anyone play it as beautifully as Denk did.

After the last note faded, all of us, Denk included, sat there in silence. How do you follow that? He showed tremendous grace easing into the Scherzo. Not easy.

The “Hammerklavier” is the ultimate challenge for any pianist. Its beginning is famous just on its own. Right at the get-go, the left hand makes this big leap. You cannot guarantee it will land where it should.
Denk compounded the drama of that beginning by hurling himself into the piece within a second of finishing his spoken introduction. He said, “Enough talking!” and boom, he was off and running before he even sat down. You could not beat that.

The first movement of the “Hammerklavier” had a boundless energy and a great forward momentum. Denk made sure you felt the music’s impact. When he hit one of those fortissimo fanfares, his arms swung up from the force of it. He would throw back his head, catch the audience’s eye. He was natural, not uptight, not affected. I admired that.

The slow movement was so deeply felt and the finale so dazzling that at the end, I think everyone was a little dazed. What a display this was of virtuosity, assurance, strength and humor. Denk defined the music’s architecture, but also played up the disorienting key changes, the zany melody lines — the humanity, you could say, in this superhuman creation. I wish I had a recording of it. I would like to hear it again.
As an encore, Denk played the slow movement of Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata, the piece he originally planned on playing here in its entirety. He made it charming, embracing the music’s wit and lyricism.
Don’t worry about that Carnegie Hall gig, Mr. Denk.

You’re good to go.