When: Sat., Dec. 10, 8 p.m. 2016
Pianist Jeremy Denk writes prose in such a way that it's sometimes easy to forget that he is one of the best pianists in the world. His way of observing music in text is both exacting and overflowing, full of keen insights clipping by at a congenial pace. His essays play like an improvisation: themes build and recede, circle about and return, undergirded by a clear sense of form and a strong intellect. In a way, he writes like he plays. One of his best pieces is a 2012 New Yorker essay where he reflecting on the process of recording Charles Ives's 1920 Piano Sonata No. 2 Concord, Mass., 1840-1860. The work is Ives's attempt to synthesize all his ideas about music into one grand statement through a meditation on the Transcendentalists.
The Concord presents an especially devious challenge to the recording studio and performer alike, with sudden changes in mood and attack, chords that jam together seemingly unrelated notes, themes that pile on top of each other, and a sense of post-modern density that remains daunting a hundred years after its composition. It's entirely haunted by the opening of Beethoven's Fifth.
Denk's essay details his search for balance between rigor and spontaneity in the sonata's many devilish runs, the unexpected difficulties of recording a wooden board playing the piano, and the confounding process of finding just the right take when stitching the recording together. "I think about how precious live performance is," Denk writes near the end, "and how terrible it is that more and more performances aim to sound like recordings rather than the other way around." It's a virtuoso account of the piece.
For this concert, Denk will make his case for the liveness of the Concord. His thunderous recording feels alive as it navigates Ives's labyrinths. We got a sneak peak of what it sounds like in person when Denk last came to town in early 2015. After a concert jammed with demanding music, he played the third movement from the Concord as an encore. Denk's performance was vivid, striking the proper equipoise between humor, delicacy, and transcendence. The rest of the work should sound just as spectacular. Denk fills out the program with two equally finger-twisting pieces, Beethoven's "Tempest" sonata and Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy. He's never one to take it easy, and we're better for it. —Dan Ruccia