In a program of favorites, Denk displays depth and bravura at the Gardner Museum

January 13, 2014 at 1:18 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Pianist Jeremy Denk performed Sunday afternoon at the Gardner Museum.

Like many pianists on the scene today, Jeremy Denk plays with a pearly tone and sparkling technique. But of all of his qualities, his penetrating interpretations of a broad range of repertoire make his performances unique and engaging.

Denk is riding high these days, having chalked up major successes for his recordings, concert appearances, and writings about music. To top it off, he was recently named a MacArthur Fellow.

But Sunday afternoon, in the intimate setting of the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall, he returned to his roots with a wide-ranging recital of works that, as he told to the audience, are personal favorites.

Of those, three of György Ligeti’s Études featured the pianist at his most technically brilliant. Denk released a recording of the first two books of these evocative and knuckle-busting works in 2012. The meandering lines of En Suspens, cast in different time signatures for each hand, eventually come together in a dense harmonic wash. The bell-like rolls of Galamb borong culminate in a piercing clamor, which resolves, by piece’s end, into low rumbles that are left to evaporate in a fog of overtones. In the hard-driving L’escalier du diable, scales begin their relentless climb into the upper register before breaking into shards of stabbing chords. The motion is broken suddenly by an uneasy repose. Denk played all with aplomb.

The first half of the program featured the pianist in colorful, if heavily romanticized readings of two Mozart sonatas. As a result, the composer emerged as a more forward-looking and transitional figure than is normally heard.

This was especially audible in the second movement of the opener, the Piano Sonata No. 15 in F major, K. 533/494, where shapely rubato tempos saturated the music with Schubertian lyricism. And the florid lines of the contrapuntal first movement, taken at a brisk pace, had the crisp energy and weighty tone of Beethoven.

The dark melancholy inherent in the Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310 provided fertile ground for Denk’s intuitive reading. Composed during a time of personal tragedy (Mozart’s mother had just died), the A minor mixes yearning passages with moments of storm and stress. Here too, Denk brought Beethovenian power to the outer movements. Thick harmonies thundered from the graceful textures in unexpected ways. The Andante, where the notes blurred into a milky haze, covered the full range of darkness and light.

The recital closed with Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6. These eighteen character pieces portray the composer’s literary alter egos, Florestan and Eusebius, in dialogue. Denk drew out Florestan’s fiery personality with vigor. But the achingly lyrical movements, notably the sentimental “Innig” and final waltz, gave the gentle-mannered Eusebius the last word.

Pianist Alexander Melnikov will explore Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, at 1:30 p.m. January 19 and 26 at the Gardner Museum.

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