When Maurizio Pollini cancelled his American tour due to illness, Carnegie Hall prevailed on Jeremy Denk, who recently gave a successful recital in Zankel Hall, to perform in Pollini's place on March 27 (last night). I was a lucky beneficiary of this change in plans, for Denk's recital was absolutely brilliant from start to finish. He programmed Charles Ives's Concord Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 2) in the first half, and J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, in the second half.
I go back a long way with the Ives, having begun to listen to his music as a high schooler in the 1960s, but I've never felt fully at home with the Concord Sonata. This was one of a handful of Ives's works that were actually published during his lifetime, as Ives self-published this Sonata and a collection of his songs and mailed out copies to musicians and music libraries hoping to stir some interest in his music. John Kirkpatrick came across the Sonata and arranged to play the world premiere during the 1930s in New York City's Town Hall, subsequently recording the work for Columbia. He made a stereo LP recording later, after having done considerable work in the Ives archives surfacing various changes that Ives conceived for the piece over time. In a sense, this Sonata was never really finished as such, the early publication being a snapshot of Ives' view of the work at that point. In addition, the piece itself seems to leave lots of room for interpretation by the individual artist, as a result of which no two performances and no two recordings sound exactly alike.
That said, I think Denk has achieved a new level of insight into this work that makes his performance quite spectacularly involving for the listener. His playing reflects a comfort with the material, and a deep channeling of the composer, that draws the listener in, as if hearing a private communion. I've now heard Denk play both Ives sonatas, having attended his rendition of Sonata No. 1 at the Highline Ballroom (not the best venue for concentrated listening to serious concert music), and having heard his recording of both pieces. I hope his work on Ives heralds a new generation of performers with new insights. Much as the old Kirkpatrick recordings were special in their way, and subsequent recordings by such luminaries as Gilbert Kalish and Marc-Andre Hamelin have their own special insights to offer, I think Denk has set a new standard in these works.
As for the Goldberg Variations, I was struck in particular by the playfulness of Denk's performance. As in the Ives, he seemed totally at ease with the material, playing with brilliance and depth. The beauty of the piano tone at all dynamic levels and speeds was noteworthy, as well as the stirring dance rhythms he emphasized in many of the variations. I hope he gets around to recording this as well.
I think Jeremy Denk has developed into one of the finest new pianists on the scene. I've enjoyed hearing him play at Peoples' Symphony Concerts, in chamber music and as soloist, collaborating with Joshua Bell on Sonatas, and in some fine recordings. Every time I see his name on a concert advertisement, I have a sense of eager anticipation. I've also seen numerous mentions of his blog, and will have to start checking that out as well.