Soul Mates on the Wild Side: Transcendental Ives and Mavericky Beethoven

11.13.08
Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

At first glance Charles Ives’s “Concord” Sonata and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata would not seem to have that much in common, other than being two of the hardest, longest and most path-breaking works in the piano repertory. But the pianist Jeremy Denk paired the pieces in his exciting sold-out recital at Zankel Hall on Tuesday night. In the engaging program notes that this intellectually curious pianist wrote for the occasion, he made a case for these works, written roughly a century apart, as creative soul mates, “too dangerous, wild, asymmetrical, elusive” to be monumental.

Both the “Hammerklavier,” completed in 1819, and the “Concord,” finished in 1918, display “a perverse desire to do the unimaginable.” Beethoven’s fugue subject in the final movement seems to “defy the genre of the fugue.” And Ives, evoking Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prose style, tried “to create a form without what we would normally call form, to sustain an enormous shape through thunderbolts of connection and association.” Though visionary, these sonatas are summations that “seek modernity in the past.”

I am tempted to continue letting Mr. Denk do my work for me and just keep borrowing his keen observations. But the real argument for the linkage between these pieces came with Mr. Denk’s thrilling performances. He played these daunting scores, each about 45 minutes, from memory, bringing a rare combination of command and spontaneity to his dynamic performances.

He began with the “Concord,” consisting of wildly contrasting portraits of towering figures of 19th-century American transcendentalism. In “Emerson,” the opening movement and the wildest, Ives conveys the teeming, free-thinking ideas of the status-quo-smashing essayist.

Many pianists emphasize the volatile craziness of “Emerson.” Mr. Denk conveyed the music’s teeming energy, while also projecting the thematic thread, however fractured, that runs through this movement. He somehow made the mood swings seem inevitable, from the dissonant, contrapuntally convoluted outbursts to the pensive passages with hints of hymn tunes.

During the raucous “Hawthorne,” the homebound tenderness of “The Alcotts” and the metaphysical musings of “Thoreau,” Mr. Denk brought out both the sonata’s radicalism and nostalgia, yet never let the music seem simply eccentric. Ives emerged here as a cagey master.

There was no trace of Germanic, granitic monumentality in Mr. Denk’s performance of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier.” From his bracing account of the opening Allegro, taking a fleet tempo, through the insanely complex final fugue, its subject thick with finger-twisting trills, Mr. Denk’s playing was wonderfully light-textured, articulate and restless. Beethoven never wrote a thornier piece. Yet hints of Beethoven the daring improviser also came through in Mr. Denk’s fresh, risky and, when called for, boldly humorous performance.

Speaking of humor, check out Mr. Denk’s Web site (jeremydenk.net) for his musings on music and the life of a concert pianist. In a recent post he writes an imagined interview with Gov. Sarah Palin, discussing the “Hammerklavier,” which she calls Beethoven’s “most maverickyest” song. Giving advice to Mr. Denk in tackling the daunting fugue, his Sarah Palin says, “Trill, baby, trill!”