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The Colossus of Modes

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
11/11/2008 -  
Charles Ives: Sonata No. 2 “Concord Mass, 1840-60”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 29 in B flat Major, Opus 106 “Hammerklavier”

Jeremy Denk (Pianist), Tara Helen O’Connor (Flutist)

Jeremy Denk (© Dennis Callahan)

Luxor, the old capital of Upper Egypt, has a temple with statues of two 40-foot-high Pharaohs facing each other. One is spotless clean, the other ragged and eroding. But both are so imposing and seemingly omnipotent that 5,000 years later, we visitors feel all too mortal, all too base in their presence. Jeremy Denk gave us those “Pharaohs” last night, and we all came out of it a bit more humble about ourselves, and a bit prouder that our species gave birth to Beethoven and Ives.

Jeremy Denk is not one of the best-kept secrets of the piano world. He is Joshua Bell’s state-of-the-art accompanist, he has performed with most of the major orchestras, is one of the stellar lights at Bard College. His insightful program notes rival those of his titular boss at Bard, Leon Botstein. Yet this was his very first solo appearance in Carnegie Hall, and he made the most of it.

An unassuming appearance was purely illusional, for he launched into massive complexities of Charles Ives’ great work, plunging ahead for two movements, until getting to the almost sentimental “Alcotts” and bringing us full circle to the final “Thoreau”. This would have been enough for any other pianist, but after the intermission, he worked through another piece which shatters pianos, pianists and music itself, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. Both works were about 45 minutes long, and both held the attention from first notes onward.

The pairing of the ornery American and the even more ornery European was hardly uncalculated. While Ives was probably more pleasant as a person, both had contempt for “nice” music, both reached for universal meanings, and both were products not of their times but of eras which could never been explained to their own contemporaries. And where Ives had an adoration for Beethoven—shown in the constant quotes of the Fifth Symphony opening in the “Concord”, Beethoven had the same adoration for Bach—as shown in his Bach “doodlings” at the beginning of the fourth movement here.

Most essential of all, neither composer paid much attention to what was technically “possible”. Which is where Jeremy Denk entered. He entered with the complex “Emerson” movement, yet through all the complexity, the Beethoven recalls were obvious, the overlapping lines almost transparent under this touch. Here were moments of deep brooding, and—like the following Beethoven—measures which leaped out of nowhere, yet were all part of what was unexplainably a logical structure. When Ives reached his “Columbia , the Gem of the Ocean”, all hell broke loose, a hell controlled somehow by Denk.

The following “Hawthorne” took advantage of Hawthorne’s ghost stories, but this was no Bartók “night music.” The rollicking haunting could as easily have been Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane, yet it still was shadowy and mysterious.

The “Alcotts” (which Denk repeated as an encore) began simply, but Ives was no sentimental MacDowell. This family setting had its own songs and memories. Yet with “Thoreau”, Denk presented the strangest movement of all, for Thoreau was the most eccentric of all the Transcendentalists. It could not be classified, but Denk kept it within control, so by the end, after the lovely flute obbligato by Tara Helen O’Connor where the pianist walked off as cool as if he’d played a single Scarlatti sonata, I, at least, felt both enervated and, yes, transcendent.

(By the way, Denk failed in one way. Ives wrote an explanation of the work, dedicating it “to those who can’t stand my music”. Nobody was in that mode last night.)

The Hammerklavier started off with the controversial speed of Beethoven’s metronome markings. In other words, Denk played with forceful rapidity. Nothing, though, was blurred. Denk’s fingers were light on the keys, jumping from one note to another with electricity. The scherzo was played with equal speed, a kind of will-o’-the-wisp alacrity, but that was sobering enough for the last movements, perhaps the apex of Beethoven piano work.

That Adagio sostenuto had an extreme care in every measure, yet it flowed calmly until near the middle. Here, Denk, in a return to utter simplicity, played the treble like Chopin or Schubert, ending the entire movement with simple grace. Beethoven used to sometimes end his slow movements and boom out a loud “Hah!!” to the startled audience. In this case, he wouldn’t have dared.

The finale was all that we would expect. An introduction that was held taut, and a fugue “three voices with license”, as Beethoven the joker wrote, which swelled and fell, which gobbled up all the keys of the piano at one time, which reached from top to bottom. And yes, it is a feverish movement at times, but this fever was hardly an illness, it was the heart and soul of a composer who wrote as he heard it internally, and dared only the best to complete his eternal notes. Jeremy Denk is one of those rare few that can come near to building the structures of Beethoven’s immortal architecture.

CODA: Jeremy Denk’s most recent achievement is a piece of literature which is already, after about two weeks, a modern classic. “Sarah Pailin Speaks About The ‘Hammerklavier’” is insightful, knowledgeable, profound and hilarious. If you weren’t fortunate enough to be at his concert, by all means search out this story.

Harry Rolnick



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