Jeremy Denk mixes Brahms and Ligeti at Clarice Smith Center

July 19, 2012

The buzz in the Clarice Smith Center lobby before Jeremy Denk’s recital Wednesday was about the upcoming program, the first two books of Ligeti’s Etudes plus both books of Brahms’s “Paganini Variations.” A more punishing marathon could not be imagined, and in the event, Denk played only the first Brahms set. But this was still a remarkable concert by one of the most interesting pianists around.

Denk, whose witty, self-deprecating blog draws almost as much attention as his playing, is an omnivorous musician, who scales the Everests of the solo literature when not doing chamber music with Joshua Bell or Steven Isserlis. His recently released CD of the Ligeti Etudes (13 of the 18 total) has already caused a stir, and it was a treat to see the artist render them live. His performance was a tour de force of concentration and keyboard command.

Denk relished Ligeti’s explorations of metrical irregularities and pianistic acrobatics, often couched in a punishing moto perpetuo texture. While the fingerwork was not pristine in No. 3, “Touches bloquees,” or No. 10, “Der Zauberlehrling,” the fullest imagination was always engaged. Denk balanced small details and larger patterns admirably, and he brought this great music more fully into the public awareness.

After intermission, the Brahms Op. 118 set allowed the artist to dream a little without worrying how to get to the next note. Denk’s way with the music was a little opaque for my taste; less-important voices sometimes covered the principal one. The playing had more fussiness than grandeur. But the “Romanze” was lovely and evocative.

The “Paganini Variations” were perhaps the least successful, although still enjoyable. From slightly careless rhythm in the theme to effortful playing in the knottiest passages, Denk’s technique revealed occasional limitations. He missed very few notes, but it was clear when his powerful musical intellect had to recede in order to jump the highest keyboard hurdles. He still shaped the overall structure of the piece well, setting off groups of variations into a logical narrative. It was a memorable evening by an artist of bracing musical energy and intelligence.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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