Last night, Jeremy Denk gave a superb concert of music by Ives and Beethoven at Zankel Hall (which is part of Carnegie Hall) in New York City. Denk chose the daunting task of playing Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass 1840-60” and Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier.” Both works are noted and feared for their technical challenges, and most pianists would be ecstatic to perform just one of the pieces at a recital. Not so with Denk. In this, his debut performance as a soloist at Zankel, Denk took command of the keyboard and got past the virtuosic demands to reveal the full range of emotions and artistry in these works.
The “Concord Sonata,” was written by Ives between 1916 and 1919, and it celebrates a hand-full of major figures of transcendentalism: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry Thoreau. With dexterity, understanding, and passion, Denk got at the heart of each movement of the sonata, and gave us a glimpse into Ives’ vision of these people and the ideas they represented. The atmospheric range moved from simple and ethereal to complex and rough-hewn. The hymn-like passages in The Alcotts section was the easiest to grasp. Denk’s playing brought the audience closer to the music, but he didn’t beat us over the head with it. He made it a pleasure to hear.
Beethoven wrote the “Hammerklavier Sonata” between 1816 and 1817, a period when he had not composed very many pieces. Yet he seemed to throw everything he could imagine into this work. Its four movements contain a jumble of ideas that seem incomprehensible and technically impossible, including a fugue to end all fugues.
Denk has an arsenal of talent that can deal with the seemingly endless variety of musical hurdles that Beethoven employs: backwards and forwards scales, themes that are reversed and inverted, and mercurial transitions. Denk showed a complete mastery of the piece, and again showed the intimate side of the music. That is, the music didn’t seem remote and aloof. Instead, it came alive and touched the audience, which responded with such thunderous applause that Denk returned to give us an encore. He played The Alcott movement from the “Concord Sonata,” and it sounded different and better than when he had played it on the first half of the program. It was a marvelous choice by Denk and a wonderful way to end the evening.