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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Not easy but staggeringly original and a lot of fun too.
Piano Sonatas: No. 1; No. 2
Jeremy Denk (pn)
THINK DENK MEDIA TDM2567 (73:46)
It’s a sign of our times that a famous, 40-year-old pianist is better known for his blogs than for his performances (jeremydenk.net/blog). One cannot imagine a Serkin or a Horowitz in
this position; Glenn Gould took the first steps toward pianist-as-existential-philosopher. The back page of this booklet shows Jeremy Denk smirking behind a wooden sign proclaiming “Concord School of Philosophy.” The
New York Times
of October 3, 2010, devoted a full page to Denk, his (non-) career, his blog, his involvement with Ives’s music, and—almost as an afterthought—this disc. Denk played the “Concord” recently at Zankel Hall in New York. The man obviously enjoys a challenge; the other half of his two-sonata program was the “Hammerklavier.” The Ives sonatas—fingerbreakers both—make perfect discmates; at least two other pianists have so combined them, although neither is available today.
Denk talks in the
about Ives’s tenderness, “about things recalled … or memories and visions fetched out of some difficult place.” His performances, however, emphasize the muscular, outgoing side of these sonatas. His “Concord” lies at the opposite end of the scale from Gilbert Kalish’s silky re-creation of the misty past. Notable recordings by Marc-André Hamelin (his second) and Pierre-Laurent Aimard fall in between; Hamelin’s virtuosity is sheathed in elegance, whereas Aimard presents a more apollonian view of the music. Denk goes for the gut, hammering away at points he wishes to stress. Moments in “Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” and “Thoreau” rise to an almost maniacal ferocity; calmer passages are executed with extreme clarity—no misty reminiscences here. Tara Helen O’Connor plays the flute in the fourth movement, “Thoreau.” All these performances are marvelous; the more we hear the “Concord” Sonata, the more we realize how it welcomes every interpretation.
The First Sonata can be viewed in hindsight as a proving ground for many aspects of the “Concord.” Although it remains a collection of loosely connected fragments, it is so lively, so imaginative, as to be irresistible in its own right. It is also so difficult to play that many pianists who tackle its successor are unwilling to do double duty. Denk points up all the humor, all the jazz, in an overwhelming virtuoso reading that puts all his predecessors to shame.
The recorded sound, from the recital hall at Purchase College, is warm and close, its dynamic range even greater than Denk employed in Zankel Hall. It is not clear whether this is a function of the more resonant acoustic, the recording itself, or the myriad opportunities offered by a studio session. Not the least of this production’s highlights are Denk’s own program notes; he writes with as much conviction, imagination, and virtuosity as he plays. The last of four essays contemplates Ives’s “obsessive assault” on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Denk’s views of classical music in “our vast information age, with memes, ledes, semes, and YouTube.” The pianist has taken part in many solo, chamber music, and orchestral recordings, but this is his first solo disc—as is appropriate for such an original musical thinker, on his own label.
FANFARE: James H. North
Jeremy Denk wants us to think of Ives as fun rather than dissonant. Fortunately, he doesn't consider the two mutually exclusive, and this recording of the Piano Sonatas excels in both. Whatever historical continuities there might be behind Ives' music - and I suspect they are very slight - it is important to treat him as an original, as a maverick. There is regularly a tension in Ives' music between the borrowed materials – the folk tunes, the allusions to Beethoven – and the context. I think one of the reasons why Denk's interpretations are so successful is that he accentuates that tension. Even when the composer is stating his apparently uncontroversial melodic ideas, there is always something slightly crazed about the way they are played.
Denk provides copious liner-notes, which are well-written and informative – Essays After a Sonata if you like. One interesting point he makes is that Ives was distancing himself from the European traditions that were dominant in America at the start of the 20
th century. That opens up some intriguing possibilities in terms of performance. Is Denk fostering an un-European piano technique. Well, he is certainly unafraid of offending traditional European tastes. The sheer quantity of pedal in these performances could seem brash and extreme in anything from the European 19
th century repertoire. And the almost sensationalist way in which Ives' dissonances are presented, or rather hammered home, seems somehow distinctively American. There is also an urgency about this music, which is distinctively Ives rather distinctively American perhaps, but it comes through in the way that build-ups are affected through accelerating the music while piling on the chords. The processes almost seem external to the music, but achieve their aim through the performer acting on every performance indication, and achieving that loyalty without ever risking pedantry.
That's not to suggest that there is no subtlety here. True, this music makes its greatest impact in its louder sections, but there is also an impressive gradation of dynamics and of articulation, although thick legato textures are the norm. It is easy to overlook the many quieter dissonances in these scores, but they allow Denk's technique to shine through in the evenness of balance and control of tone he achieves.
The recorded sound is good, although perhaps a little resonant given the amount of pedalling. The piano has a round rather than a crisp tone, which if anything takes the edge of the most grating of the dissonances. The belated entry of the flute - marvellously played by Tara Helen O'Connor - at the end of the Concord Sonata, is presented with the ideal balance, the piano predominating throughout and the flute apparent, but always distant.
These Sonatas don't get the exposure they deserve, not on this side of The Pond anyway, so Jeremy Denk's fine recording is welcome indeed. Both composer and performer are aware that the music needs some explaining, and the excellent liner-notes here are almost as useful as the recording itself in getting to grips with the music. But it is the performance that really endears this disc. It isn't easy music, but as Denk demonstrates it is staggeringly original and, much more importantly, it's a lot of fun too.
-- Gavin Dixon, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Sonata for Piano no 1 by Charles Ives
Jeremy Denk (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1901-1909; USA
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Exciting and Deeply Profound March 23, 2013
By Jay Singer (Pepper Pike, OH) See All My Reviews
"I am only peripherally familiar with Ives' music having been taught in music apprec. that one of his orchestral works tries to synthesize two marching bands playing and marching towards each other into a colossal collision! I am prepared for dissonance since I've listened to, and enjoyed music by Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa and Mingus as examples of composers employing this 'flavor'. These sonatas are certainly dissonant in many spots, yet they are exciting, engrossing and fantastic! I don't have a basis for comparing Denk's performance with others; his is virtuosic and clear, even with the copious use of the sostenuto pedal. I greatly enjoy this recording and look forward to comprehending more fully this music with repeated listens. Jeremy Denk wrote an article describing how he recorded this music. It appeared in the NY Times and, I think Stereophile Magazine. It's a must-read!"