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: Piano Sonata No 32, Op. 111
After treating my mum to the very special gift of The MET Orchestra and Christian Tetzlaff at Carnegie Hall for Mother’s Day, I felt totally entitled to treat myself to a just as special gift for my own birthday. And it certainly felt like my stars were all blissfully aligning when my friend Paula mentioned over a month ago that Jeremy Denk would be playing Ligeti and Beethoven at Le Poisson Rouge on (Ta-Da!) May 21. I mean, what more could a girl want than one of today’s most idiosyncratic pianists performing works by two ground-breaking composers in one of Greenwich Village’s most talked-about venues? Nothing, really.
So even if the non-stop pouring rain put a slight damper on our spirits, my mum and I got to enjoy a crowd-free walk across Central Park, an edifying visit of the Museum of the City of New York and a semi-surprise visit from a long-time dear friend from Baltimore, which led to a sangria-fueled Happy Hour in the Village. Next stop was a mysterious staircase going down to an equally mysterious space. Once we got there, one thing became immediately clear: If the level of trendiness has anything to do with the degree of darkness, there is no doubt whatsoever that Le Poisson Rouge is the hottest spot in town indeed.
I had been first introduced to the music of Gyorgy Ligeti by the very same Jeremy Denk so I was already fully aware that he knew his stuff and we were in extremely good hands. That, of course, does not mean that these Études go down easy, and I was secretly wondering how my mum would take to Ligeti’s controlled chaos, especially after putting her through Schoenberg’s unfriendly cacophony the day before. But those worries were quickly brushed aside by our pianist for the evening, who not only tamed those technical minefields with carefree aplomb, but also allowed the challenging works to become readily accessible to even the most unsuspecting listener. True passion is just so incredibly communicative, isn’t it?
From the jazzy swing of “Désordres” to the devilish acrobatics of “Touches bloquées”, he seemed to totally revel in the Hungarian-turned-Austrian composer’s maniacal intricacies while still subtly displaying his innermost finesse in the delicate poetry of “Arc-en-ciel” and the evocative beauty of “Automne à Varsovie”. As if this mesmerizing festival of unusual textures and colors were not enough, he casually threw in Liszt’s transcription of Bach’s “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” between Ligeti’s fifth and sixth pieces, just like that. A little bonus track from another fellow virtuosic pianist whose timeless brilliance fit in perfectly.
If Ligeti was a substantial smorgasbord, Beethoven was one memorable journey from stormy past to luminous future. Keeping the tempo dynamic and the touch light, Jeremy Denk brought a deeply felt humanity to the work, keenly demonstrating that the grumpy old composer had real feelings too. The passionate first movement exploded with fierce turbulence and powerful drama, before heavens eventually opened up during the second movement, which reached transcendental heights while alluding to a bright, peaceful future. I am actually determined to take the unabashedly hopeful conclusion as a good omen for this brand new year in my life.
As I am getting older and so much wiser, it is performances like this that remind me that it is pointless to sweat passing inconveniences, such as the subpar quality of the food (But, hey, I did manage to find one white anchovy and one parmesan shaving in my otherwise dull Caesar salad) and a “first come, first served” seating policy that comes into force only BEYOND the first two rows of tables (At least we caught a glimpse of the New York Philharmonic’s very own Alan Gilbert clad in a decidedly appropriate leather jacket). The music’s the thing, and the thing was fabulous.