There’s a whole dance of vulnerability and restraint that goes on when a concert performer walks out in front of an audience: the formal attire and hush of the hall on the one hand, the emotional revelations of performance on the other. Audiences are generally hungry for as much of the revelation part as they can get and are thus eager to look behind the scenes; today, blogs, Twitter and other social media are helping lift the curtain more and more, and making such access a part of the performer’s job.
Jeremy Denk, the pianist whom Washington Performing Arts Society presented at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue on Saturday night, is a quintessential 21st-century performer; his blog, Think Denk, has played a significant role in his career rise and helped get him published in places such as the New Yorker, where he wrote a typically revealing and insightful piece this year about what it was like to record Charles Ives’s “Concord” Sonata. Anyone who has read his blog knows his stories of nervousness, of the vagaries of audience members and presenters, the work and thought that go into preparing a piece and the annoyance when people fail to listen as carefully as you’ve worked to play it. This is all great, but it also starts to inform the performance to such a degree that the recital is almost a kind of performance art, intensely personal and all about you, all the time.
To be clear, Denk would take a personal approach to performing regardless of whether he blogged. He appears to be a pianist who puts a personal stamp on everything, as well as one who rises to big challenges; he’s at his best when he’s fully engaged, intellectually and emotionally, often in big marathon pieces such as the “Concord” Sonata or Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier.” But there becomes something slightly facile about the personal touch: It’s become expected of him that he will offer something intimate, give off-the-cuff remarks about the music, change his program around (something he said to Saturday’s audience that he’d read about himself on the Internet, before announcing, predictably, that he was doing it).
Saturday’s charming, easy performance started slowly, with a not-quite-gelled reading of Mozart’s K. 457 sonata, and quickly peaked with Book I of Ligeti’s Etudes for Piano, which happen to be featured on his new recording, his first for the label Nonesuch. Denk has a way of explicating complicated music by playing it so that it seems self-evident and absolutely graspable — a considerable gift. In his hands, these etudes became lovely pieces, intensity alternating with languid grace (like the fifths of the second etude, gently swaying like underwater plants). The third etude, he explained in mercifully un-didactic comments to the audience, was supposed to represent the worst kind of technical exercise you can imagine, with deliberately out-of-tune octaves; when he played it, he managed to bring out its deliberate clumsiness while making it sound graceful at the same time.
He also presented an unusual programming conceit — breaking up the etudes by playing Liszt’s prelude on Bach’s “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” between the fifth and sixth ones — without making a big deal of it. The Liszt, he pointed out, focuses on a descending chromatic scale, just like the sixth etude. He adjusted his performance so that the interpolation made dramatic sense. The Liszt seemed to follow naturally from the dreamy fifth etude and built to an emotional peak to pave the way for the sixth, which now seemed like a coda, a weird glance into the future, Liszt’s idea suddenly seen through 20th-century glasses. But Denk also left room for it to serve as a true climax. It was a rhetorical conceit rather than a definitive one: That is, you wouldn’t want to hear the pieces played like this every time, but it made for an interesting reading here, and Denk seemed to know the difference.
The program’s second half was changed to reflect, as Denk said, “heaven and hell,” a trite conceit that fortunately didn’t indicate as melodramatic a performance as one might have expected. In lieu of Brahms’s six Op. 118 piano pieces, Denk subbed in another major work from his new recording: Beethoven’s final sonata, Op. 111, which followed another Liszt piece, “Apres une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata.” The drama of the Liszt piece was followed by the redemptive tones of the Beethoven, but Denk played it, notably and refreshingly, without exaggerated pathos; even the “boogie-woogie” passage of Op. 111, which pianists often give a funky twist in performance (and which, after all, echoed the jazz overtones in a couple of the Ligeti etudes) was straightforward and down-to-earth. It was a healthy reading, moving and sensitive without becoming precious. The risk of a personal approach is that you can end up dissolving in sentiment. Denk is too good a pianist, and artist, to fall into the trap.