|Jeremy Denk at the keyboard - yes, this is a typical pose, and yes, it's a bit much.|
Yesterday I considered the case of Hilary Hahn, a brilliant violinist who seemed to only find her voice while playing Bach. Pianist Jeremy Denk (above), a rising light among keyboard stars, made his own Celebrity Series appearance in the same hall just 24 hours later - and displayed something like the same syndrome as Hahn. He, too, aligned technically and interpretively with only one artist on his program - Franz Liszt, whose works he illuminated spectacularly; perhaps almost definitively. But alas, Liszt was only one of four composers on the program.
And the first of these, Béla Bartók, is about as far from Liszt in many ways as as you can get - even if they shared the same birthplace (Hungary) and an intense interest in that nation's folk music (tellingly, though, their approaches were opposed - Liszt's was fundamentally sentimental, Bartók's almost scientific). Bartók penned only one piano sonata, which Denk essayed in a style that seemed almost mysterious (looking at the notes in my program, I can see I scrawled a big "??" next to it). Based loosely on folk motifs, the sonata is a fractured, percussive thing - although beneath its surface it's quite perfectly structured: surrounding a moody central meditation are two bouncing, happily savage dances. Denk gave it the energy it demands, but his touch was gently blurry, the rhythms were pounding but hardly dancing, and the whole thing felt indulgently academic; if this was savagery, it was Oscar Wilde's idea of savagery.
Things looked up immediately, however, with the Liszt; the gentle core of Denk's touch, so wrong for Bartók, sounded perfect for the elder Hungarian, while his subdued personal flamboyance - he's prone to onstage swoons (above) - suddenly seemed apropos. And of course in Liszt, structure is out the window, and floating mood (at which Denk excels) is everything. An opening prelude after Bach made me sit up in my seat, but the performance suddenly soared with Sonetto 123 del Petrarca and Après une lecture du Dante (both from the middle installment of Années de pèlerinage) which wander all over the place (hey, they're pilgrimages), and of course are a little too long, and honestly, recall neither Petrarch nor Dante - but are ravishing all the same. Here Denk's startling ability to build a kind of architecture out of arpeggios, or conjure from them undulating, silvery showers, transformed several passages into something divine but ephemeral (which may be the essence of Liszt). After a brief pause, perhaps to collect himself, Denk closed his glorious tribute to this composer with his intriguing, somehow sanctified piano transcription of Wagner's famous "Liebestod."
Alas, more mystery occluded the second half of the program. I'm aware that Bach's 24th Prelude and Fugue from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier is considered something of an oddity - but unfortunately I thought the same thing of Denk's gently pointless performance, which sounded little more than over-considered (he has a well-regarded blog; perhaps if I read it, I'd have guessed what he was getting at). The Beethoven sonata that followed (No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111, the great man's last) was somewhat better - but only intermittently, as the same sense of unfocused over-thinking plagued much of it. Luckily, the final serenade of the concluding Adagio (denoted "semplice e cantabile") played again to the performer's strengths, and Denk wrapped with something of the rapt, melancholic tranquility that had illuminated the Liszt.
I have to report that the crowd was enthusiastic, however, and called the pianist back for an encore - which turned out to be one of Bach's Goldberg Variations, but played again in a plush, late romantic style. Sigh. I guess that's Jeremy Denk's story, and he's sticking to it.