Like many self-afflicting perfectionists, the pianist Jeremy Denk probably has a slender file of negative reviews stashed in the closet. Perhaps he can’t help himself from chewing over a handful of unkind comments someone made long ago. These days, though, virtually everything he does provokes a patter of backslaps — not the sort of hysterical praise that can burden a 20-year-old virtuoso with unrealistic expectations, but (since he’s in his 40s) a consensus of gratitude for what he has already done. Several years ago, Denk gave a tour-de-force recital in which he played two mythic monsters of the repertoire: Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier.” These are difficult pieces for a listener to assimilate, but Denk unearthed a common vein of lucid insanity. He didn’t gloss over Ives’s crashing non-sequiturs or Beethoven’s mad-scientist version of a fugue; he gloried in them.
Since then, he has given many reliably revelatory performances, recorded the Ives Sonatas and the Bach Partitas with clarity and tenderness, collaborated sensitively with the violinist Joshua Bell, and now, in his Nonesuch debut, paired two avant-garde visionaries from different eras: GyÃ¶rgy Ligeti, who died in 2006 and, yes, Beethoven again. Denk points out that while Beethoven’s “heroic” middle period molded generations of 19th-century composers, it was the unsettling, extreme and disorienting music he wrote in his last years that haunted the 20th century. On this recording, he frames Beethoven’s last sonata (No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111) with Ligeti’s sweetly diabolical Etudes. The first is a masterpiece of disintegration, the second of obsession, but across two centuries the two composers share a radical imagination and the ability to keep you off balance in frighteningly beautiful ways.
To call Denk a thoughtful pianist seems faint praise — like relegating him to the ranks of preciously cerebral interpreters who calculate the value of each grace note and burden every chord with oppressive deliberateness. Denk’s playing is more fluid and flexible than that. But his writings in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and on his own blog, Think Denk, have also made him a pianist/intellectual in the tradition of Charles Rosen, only wryer. “If you play a lot of Charles Ives,” he writes, “you have to put with the raised eyebrows of skeptics, who refer to him as ‘a crazy insurance salesman.’ This is frustrating. He was actually a spectacular insurance salesman.”
Denk’s writing is not incidental to his pianism. He plays as if thinking out loud — never hesitatingly, but always searching for a specific kind of wisdom, admitting the possibility of alternatives, and treating music as a fluid, uncertain art. In one blog entry on the Bach Violin Sonata, BWV 1017, he devotes a paragraph to four seconds of music, where the violin sustains an E-flat, while the keyboard shifts chords, turning the note into a dissonance.
I like the beat in-between: when the E-flat doesn’t know yet that it has been rethought. Where the melody’s and harmony’s tendencies clash, where the parts diverge, you get a kind of blurred double image of past and future. If you agree with me that Bach is a particularly profound essayist in the nature of time, you might agree with this leap of association: that dissonant beat is the present. It is neither here nor there. In its in-between-ness, it is the most beautiful, tastable moment of all. Why is it always the moment you want to hold onto, that is passing by?
That sort of sophisticated emotional analysis gives his recording of the Bach Partitas a rare humanism. The Sarabande in the Partita No. 4 is traditionally played at a tempo somewhere between slow and lugubrious, but he takes it at a startlingly brisk speed, so that ornaments become a garland of notes around a lilting dance. The result is a joy that seeps even into the most poignant moments. Denk has an optimistic sound.
He is also a connoisseur of chaos. There’s a famous moment midway through the second movement of Beethoven’s Op. 111 (at 6’28 in Denk’s recording) where the music tears away from its decorous melancholy and goes wheeling through a kind of crazy, syncopated Joplinesque proto-ragtime. In that moment, he draws the score from its chrysalis of convention to reveal its true wildness. There’s an unhinged giddiness to this passage that Denk doesn’t try to tame. He savors ambiguity, and when the music spins off into starscape trills and thin-air arpeggios, refusing to orbit back around to the opening theme, Denk is in his element. Whenever I read about climbers on Everest’s upper reaches losing their sense of urgency and self-preservation from lack of oxygen, I think of this ending, which Denk makes both inconclusive and terribly final.