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Pianist Denk Puts His Stamp on 2 Difficult Sonatas

11.10.08
Jeremy Denk
The Washington Post

That the Yamaha grand needed retuning during the intermission of pianist Jeremy Denk's concert at the Barns of Wolf Trap on Friday gives just a hint of the dimensions of what had just happened on that stage and what was about to happen. Denk had just explored the knottiness and quirkiness of Ives's Sonata No. 2, "Concord, Mass., 1840-1860," with both explosive power and sublime poetry, and would soon embark on Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata, Op. 106, one of Ives's major sources of inspiration.

Taking on these titans on the same program is a little like running back-to-back marathons. Beethoven was wrenching himself from the confines of classicism; Ives, a century later, was thumbing his nose at romanticism; and both composers did this at great length, in the process testing the physical limits of the piano and the emotional limits of the pianist.

Ives's "Concord" Sonata, in four movements titled "Emerson," "Hawthorne," "The Alcotts" and "Thoreau," is a journey, frequently on rough roads, through the philosophical struggles of the four protagonists. There is a sense of wildness in everything he writes but also an infectious exuberance and, sometimes, sweetness that, played as well as it was here, is irresistible. The "Hammerklavier" is Beethoven defiantly going his own way and doing his own thing, mostly in a frenzy of activity.

Both of these pieces must score way up there on the notes-per-page scale, and Denk has the chops to muscle his way through them without breaking a sweat. What made his performance so compelling, however, were the intelligence, lyricism and transparency that illuminated everything he touched. His attention to detail only heightened the unfolding drama -- one unexpected staccato in the midst of a cascade of notes, a lyrical melody able to assert itself within a welter of hyperactivity and, in the Beethoven, the powerful and authoritative mastery of silence.

When he wants to, Denk has the kind of touch on the keys that seems to draw the sound from the piano. This sort of anti-percussion gave both the Ives and the Beethoven third movements an almost vocal quality. Beethoven may have tailored this sonata for the percussive force of the piano, but his rage raged more powerfully because, in Denk's hands, his moments of repose were so peaceful.

For this concert, Denk provided the most interesting and well-written program notes I've ever read.