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Jeremy Denk and Competitions

available at Amazon
Ligeti, Études pour piano / Beethoven, Sonata (op. 111), J. Denk

(released on May 15, 2012)
Nonesuch 530562 | 67'
When one thinks of pianists who might be invited to play at a piano competition, the name of Jeremy Denk does not leap to mind. Not that he is not a fine musician, with an eclectic sense of programming and a daring interpretative approach, but perhaps because of those things. Denk has not risen to prominence by winning a major competition. In fact, he does not think much of competitions, as he wrote in a tongue-in-cheek response to a review of another pianist in the New York Times in 2008. Comparing the virtues of Apollo and Dionysus, as a way to deconstruct the opposition of "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" as ways to describe a musician's style, he wrote about Apollo's competition with Marsyas, which Apollo rigged, then won, and then took revenge by flaying Marsyas alive and displaying his inside-out skin on a tree:
Apollo was among the first to propose a music competition. That alone would be the darkest imaginable mark on his record, an utterly unforgivable sin. But then, after he wins by subterfuge—like a jerk—he is not particularly gracious in victory. Whereas: Dionysus never even gets involved in a music contest to begin with… In my opinion, Dionysus 2, Apollo 0.
Yet there was Jeremy Denk on Wednesday night at the Clarice Smith Center, invited to play a high-profile recital as part of the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival. I quote this humorous passage not because I think that Denk agreed to play this recital as a way to thumb his nose at the idea of competitions, but because the example of Denk's unusual career is a reminder to all of us, including the competitors, that competitions do not always bring out the best in us.

Denk chose to play something from his new CD, on the Nonesuch label (you can listen here), that also raised an eyebrow, most of the first two books of György Ligeti's Études pour piano, concluding, as he did on the recording, with no. 13, "L'escalier du diable." The etude, of course, is the symbol of the process of technical perfection that is the goal of competition pianists, something that Ligeti pokes fun at, as Denk observes in his entertaining liner notes, with all sorts of tricks, like keys being held down so that a chromatic scale exercise is forced to stumble and stutter and a passage in octaves with wrong notes built in, both heard in the third etude ("Touches bloquées"). Ligeti, who died in 2006, is one of the giants of the later 20th century, a composer who transcended the rigid boundaries of modernist orthodoxies, and the etudes are among his greatest achievements. What most impresses me about Ligeti's approach to the piano in these pieces is that he draws from the instrument a prismatic range of sounds and ideas without resorting to any Cagean tricks. There are no bells and whistles in the Ligeti etudes -- no objects disrupting the strings, no monkey business under the lid, no thumping on the body -- all sound is made through the keys, which is how the instrument was meant to function.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Jeremy Denk mixes Brahms and Ligeti at Clarice Smith Center (Washington Post, July 20)
Denk attacked this music with ferocity, taking at face value the composer's many directions to strip away the veneer of technical precision. Misplaced accents in no. 1 ("Désordre") eventually separate the two hands, notated in conflicting key signatures -- so that the right hand, which Ligeti instructs should always be louder, plays only white keys, while the left plays only black keys -- and misalign the bar lines. The often puckish dynamic markings split hairs down to the absurd pppppppp, and Ligeti often instructs that time signatures are "only a guideline," as in no. 7, and Denk often gave the impression of musical structure, in spite of or perhaps because of an attempt at rigorous control, coming apart at the seams. The most memorable parts played to Denk's strength of vicious attack, while the more coloristic etudes fell a little flat for want of greater craftsmanship of sound (see Pierre-Laurent Aimard, whose obsession with details of sound was documented in the film Pianomania). Still, few pianists are crazy enough to play so many of these works at once in a live concert, and Denk's rendition was thrilling to hear.

The same virtues and weaknesses were heard in the Brahms second half, with playing that emphasized rumble over finesse. The gorgeous second piece in the op. 118 set had some lovely hesitations and unusual moments savored, and the final piece was quite enigmatic. The first book of the Paganini Variations was much more in Denk's wheelhouse, again favoring wildness of attack and tempo over beautiful finish. Enthusiastic ovations elicited two encores, both reprises of pieces played earlier in the recital: Ligeti's fourth etude ("Fanfares"), this time played from memory, and an even more sentimental version of Brahms op. 118/2.


Martin said...

I heard Denk at his Carnegie Hall primer a few years ago. He played the Concord for the first half and the Goldberg for the second (omitting some repeats in the latter, but still a phenomenal display of stamina and concentration).

For his encore he recapped the Alcotts from the Concord.

Wonderful afternoon.

Simon said...

Charles - Here's the review of Denk's recital I wrote for Bachtrack. Best wishes, Simon