Monday, December 5, 2011

Jeremy Denk - Bach, Beethoven & Ligeti - 12/03/11

Bach: Toccata in D Major, BWV 912
Bach: Toccata in F-Sharp Minor, BWV 910
Beethoven: 15 Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 35, "Eroica"
Ligeti: Études, Book 1 – Désordre (Disorder), Cordes à vide (Open Strings), Touches bloquées (Blocked Keys), Fanfares, Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow), Automne à Varsovie (Warsaw Autumn)
Beethoven: Sonata in C Minor, Op. 111

Coming back from two weeks of a shamelessly epicurean life-style in France cannot be pleasant no matter how you look at it, but I did find a way to make the return to reality a little bit less painful by carefully scheduling a sure-fire fabulous treat upon my return: a recital by Jeremy Denk, the coolest pianist in New York, possibly in the States, at the 92Y. So after strategically flying back four days earlier in order to prevent any kind of jet lag from screwing up my attention span, I crossed the park to the Upper East Side on Saturday night in a giddy, but bright and wide open state of mind. The program had been slightly changed and was even more intriguing that originally planned with Bach, Beethoven, Ligeti, and more Beethoven. It is good to be back!

Kicking off the performance on a decidedly festive note, the carefree opening of Bach’s Toccata in D Major made me think of the high-spirited soundtrack of a silent comedy, where the characters’ comical antics compete with unpredictable twists of fate. After a while the pace did slow down, but not without wild accelerations springing up here and there.
Although more conventional and atmospheric, Bach’s Toccata in F-Sharp Minor was still an impressive exercise in manic finger dexterity. Playing these short works with his trademark free-spirited, unperturbed virtuosity, Jeremy Denk really made us believe that he routinely just rolls out of bed and nails it. Then again, maybe he does…
Opening on a simple but thunderous chord, Beethoven’s constantly inventive “Eroica” variations are a multi-faceted gift hat keeps on giving. It is an essentially happy, humorous even, piece, which is actually surprising considering that it was written during one of the darkest periods in the composer’s life. In Jeremy Denk’s expert hands, the complex variations sounded like purely hedonistic child’s play, as if all the technical challenges had been fully digested and only the fun part remained.
Although it seems that nowadays any program attempting to sound even vaguely cutting-edge has to include Ligeti, the Eastern European composer fit in naturally among the other two musical ground-breakers featured on Saturday. His six études presented short vignettes describing widely different scenes and atmospheres such as the relentless "Désordre" or the gentle "Cordes à vide". The sustained rhythms of "Touches Bloquées" were followed by the joyful Latin flavors of "Fanfares". Eventually, the pretty "Arc-en-ciel" let the robust "Automne à Varsovie" conclude this very enjoyable series.
Then it was back to Beethoven with the last piano sonata he ever wrote, his Sonata in C Minor. Famous for its two viscerally contrasting movements, it has deservedly been a favorite among musicians and audiences since it first came out. On Saturday at the 92Y, Jeremy Denk delivered a truly impassionate, drama-filled first movement before flawlessly switching to a light-hearted, overtly optimistic mood for the second half. The immaculate fluidity of his playing, the precise blend of spontaneity and thoughtfulness as well as his profound understanding of Beethoven’s work all contributed to making this sonata a grand, wide-reaching experience.

I was originally more than a little surprised when I noticed that Ives was not on the program, but the American composer still made a late appearance courtesy of the encore: "The Alcotts" from the Concord Sonata. A beautifully executed labor of love that brought a transcendental closure to yet another thoroughly engrossing performance by Jeremy Denk.

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