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Jeremy Denk - Ligeti/Beethoven

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Artist: Jeremy Denk

Album: Ligeti/Beethoven

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Aug. 1, 2012

This review will not please Jeremy Denk. Let me make clear: The prodigiously talented pianist has turned in a brilliant, inspired document of two equally genius and inspiring keyboard compositions. Of that, I’m sure he’d have no gripe. But in telling you why this recording is required listening, I can’t help but succumb to the four things Jeremy Denk hates most about music writing. Gifted at the computer keys, too, Denk knows how to dance about architecture himself; his 3,500-word liner notes (replete with score excerpts) offer some of the most insightful observations on György Ligeti and Ludwig van Beethoven this side of a DMA candidate’s footnotes. I’m referring, instead, to his much-discussed Think Denk blog post, “Jetlagged Manifesto” — re-published in Da Capo’s last volume of Best Music Writing (Eds. Alex Ross and Daphne Carr). What follows, then, are Denk’s cardinal sins accompanied by my attempts at atonement.

I. HISTORICIZATION: Ligeti’s Études for solo piano are the most important books for the instrument since the Structures of Pierre Boulez. (In fact, Ligeti’s first study, the black-on-white crimes of meter called “Désordre,” is dedicated to the venerable maître.) Moreover, since the University of Louisville gave the Études an ‘86 Grawemeyer, there’s been no greater work written for 88 keys. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who premiered the 11th and 13th entries, went on to record the entire cycle for Sony in 1997. And while WMG cuts Denk off after 15, I’d much rather listen to the latter’s pivoting, slightly jazzier rendition of Book I, No. V’s “Arc-en-ciel.” The same goes for Book Two’s leadoff gamelan put-on, “Galamb borong.” Denk’s hands work better out-of-synch now than Aimard’s did back then.

II. MAKING GENERIC: Beethoven’s celebrated Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111, the final piano sonata, is composed of two highly contrasting movements — one stormy “Allegro” and another stressful “Adagio.” Of course, as is the case in late-era Beethoven, it’s the medium that’s the real message. At home in extremes, from the fast movement’s martial introduction to the curious coda of the slow one’s variations, Denk wrings every last antipodal drop. “Opus 111 makes me think of Faulkner’s The Wild Palms,” wrote Milan Kundera in Testaments Betrayed (a reference the well-read Denk is quick to note on the record). In that the pianist maintains a unity of form despite the composer’s implied dichotomy, in more ways than one, Denk’s reading is Faulkneresque.

III. INSIDER’S CLUB: Just two weeks ago, I heard the pleasure of Jeremy Denk performing at the William Kapell International Piano Competition (in exhibition-only, of course). Lucky for me, it was Ligeti galore. The puckishness of Ligeti’s eight forte dynamic in “Automne à Varsovie” (“Fortissississississississimo,” Denk translated) doesn’t exactly come across on an iPod, so it was quite entertaining to see Denk attack the action live and in-person. The highlight for everyone in attendance, however, had to be the closing track from Ligeti/Beethoven, “L’escalier du diable,” or “The Devil’s Staircase.” An Escher-like excelsior anchored only by clanging tritones in the bass voice, Denk had the score to hold on to, but clearly, he did not need it. Like the 14 previous études on this disc, Denk had this one internalized.

IV. DOMESTICATION: As with Beethoven’s greatest interpreters (Bruno Walter, Carlos Kleiber…Wendy Carlos), Denk plays his music like the revolution it originally was. Again, Denk will hate me for writing that, but having lived with his bee of Beethoven for weeks now, it remains a hard-won truth. Arguments that the later bagatelles of Opus 119 and Opus 126 make for better foils with Ligeti’s studies miss the point I think Denk is wont to make. What Beethoven did on a grand Romantic scale, Ligeti surely continued, in feverish miniature, more than 150 years later. Ultimately, making that kind of connection is neither historicized and generic, nor is it abetted and taming. It’s simply the way Jeremy Denk’s beautiful musical mind works. And that alone is reason enough to listen to him play both György Ligeti and Ludwig van Beethoven. Think Denk, indeed.

By Logan K. Young

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