Jeremy Denk at Zankel Hall [Ligeti Etudes & Bach’s Goldberg Variations]

Etudes for Piano [Book I & Book II, Nos.1-7]
Goldberg Variations, BWV988

Jeremy Denk (piano)

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 16 February, 2011
Venue: Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Zankel Hall was filled to capacity with a rare mix of pianophiles and contemporary music fans. Jeremy Denk’s intrepid program of Ligeti and Bach was the catalyst for this collision of audiences.

Jeremy Denk. Photograph: J. Henry FairThroughout the program, Denk showed an undeniable abundance of technical gifts, a wide dynamic range, and an ability to draw a warm, pleasing sound from the Steinway selected for this recital. Too often, the sound of these pianos can be brittle and grating; this particular instrument was bright without sounding shrill, and had a warmer middle range than one usually hears from pianos on the Zankel stage. I’m not so sure that such warmth was suited to György Ligeti’s Etudes (performed in sequence, but omitting 8 & 8a from Book II), pieces influenced by music of sub-Saharan Africa, nonlinear mathematics, and the music of Conlon Nancarrow, who composed music for player-piano by hand-punching his own rolls, filled with complex polyrhythmic relationships and fierce barrages of scales and arpeggios. Denk’s rubato phrasing in the slower etudes invoked the spirit of Debussy, whose piano music also influenced Ligeti, but at times seemed to push too far without bringing anything additional to the music. Denk also over-employed the sustaining pedal, rendering some of the faster passages a bit muddy and making the first few of the faster etudes in Book I – ‘Désordre’, ‘Touches bloquées’, and ‘Fanfares’ – sound too much alike.

The last of the six etudes from Book I, ‘Automne à Varsovie’, – especially in its central section of descending figures – sounded uncannily like Messiaen, yet another composer whose music influenced Ligeti, and from this point onward, the characters of the individual etudes seemed to blossom. Particularly impressive selections from Book II were ‘Der Zauberlehrling’, whose final section sounded like a John Adams piano work reaching critical mass, and the bravura ‘L’escalier du diable’, with which Denk closed the sequence. This is arguably the most structurally challenging piece in the cycle, and is in many ways a distillation of all of the influences on Ligeti’s piano music. Here, Denk took an uncharacteristically dramatic approach, which, unlike the slower movements of Book I, delineated the unrelenting ascending figures that propel this music and brought real bite to the dissonances. Denk merits praise for tackling one of the most daunting piano cycles of recent decades – even if some of his decisions misfired.

Denk’s approach to Goldberg Variations leaves little to ‘historically informed’ trends, makes plenty of use of the piano’s capabilities, fusing romantic and modern elements with high baroque counterpoint and style. Denk took both repeats in the opening and closing iterations of the ‘Aria’, but there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to his selective repeats in about a third of the Variations. I was surprised at some of his tempo choices, particularly in the slower, minor-key sections. XV, taken slower than customary, was effectively dolorous, as was XXI. Denk’s faster than usual tempo in XXV, combined with his lyrical, Italianate playing, worked well and ensured that it didn’t outlast its welcome – even with the first section repeat. The first dozen or so Variations seemed a little disparate, but the balance of pacing and contrast improved, with the last five coming together almost as a set unto themselves. Goldberg Variations has been particularly over-exposed in the last decade, but I salute any pianist who takes a daring approach to it.

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