Bartok: Piano Sonata, Sz. 80
Liszt: "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen", Prelude after J. S. Bach, S. 179
Sonetto del Petrarca No 123, from Années de pélerinage, deuxième année, S. 161
"Après une lecture de Dante, Fantasia quasi sonata" from Années de pélerinage, deuxième année, S. 161
"Liebestod", from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, S. 477
Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from The Well-tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 869
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
In the middle of last week came the shock and disappointment of having the over-indulged members of the San Francisco Orchestra cancel their East Coast tour, including their appearance at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night for Mahler's 9th symphony, at the last minute because the rough economic reality of our times has apparently no place in the select sphere they evolve in. But that eventually made me all the more eager to go to that very same venue on the very next evening to hear a brilliant musician whose artistic integrity would, by all accounts, never allow him to behave like such a spoilt brat. Not to mention that, in addition to his selfless dedication to his craft, multi-faceted pianist Jeremy Denk also has the virtuosic chops to effortlessly offer some of the most thoughtful and entertaining recitals I've ever had the chance to attend. So I decided to at least temporarily forget - if not quite forgive - the temper tantrums from the Bay area and fully indulge in an appealing musical smorgasbord of works by Bartok, Liszt, Bach and Beethoven.
The concert literally kicked off with Bartok's Piano Sonata, Sz. 80, which was a fun way to get things going with wild tempos, rowdy dissonances and an infectious happy mood. Even if the middle movement was of a more subdued nature, the whole piece still sounded like the score of silent movie in which a healthy dose of action mercilessly competed with sporadic episodes of comic relief.
Next, the audience had a delectable taste of Liszt's long and eclectic career with four extremely different and equally fascinating works by the multi-talented Hungarian composer. From the title "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen", which literally translates into "Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing", it was easy to figure that the first work would not be particularly uplifting, but the Romantic overtones that Liszt infused into Bach's original composition and the expert playing by Jeremy Denk seamlessly meshed for a spontaneously engaging Prelude.
From intense sadness we moved on to pure beauty with Sonetto del Petrarca. Expertly shifting gears, Jeremy Denk delicately brought to life Liszt's exquisitely lyrical homage to the Petrarch Sonnet 123. Unhurried and freely flowing, the Sonetto unfolded with heavenly grace before ending in an elusive whisper.
"Après une lecture de Dante, Fantasia quasi sonata", on the other hand, had an intensity coming straight out from the Inferno, although Paradise would eventually win the fierce battle. The complexity and length of this challenge did not seem to faze Jeremy Denk though, and he steadily let the powerful dichotomy speak for itself.
I was very curious to hear Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Liebestod, and while the results left me somewhat wanting for the unique emotional quality of the human voice, this piano performance of it was still oozing grand Romantic passion.
Then we went back in time to Bach's Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from The Well-tempered Clavier. Not that any of Bach's work ever needs any dusting off, but Jeremy Denk's spirited playing certainly injected some additional sparking zest into the difficult two-voiced piece.
The official program concluded with Beethoven's Piano Sonata No 32 in C Minor, Op. 111, which is one of the last compositions for piano he ever wrote. I had heard Jeremy Denk play this very same piece last year at Le Poisson Rouge on my birthday, and while Friday night was not quite as big an occasion for me, hearing him perform it at Carnegie Hall was for sure another priceless gift. Starkly opening with fateful chords, the first movement ferociously exploded with the composer's hot-blooded drama while the last one gracefully expressed a soothing softness occasionally bordering on the mystical, with just a devilish ragtime interlude thrown in towards the end to remind us all what a visionary Beethoven was.
And since one can never hear too much Bach, the two encores were his Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, No. 13 followed by his Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2. The night was still young, the musician in a happily communicative mood, the audience completely captivated, and it was all over much too soon.