The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk gives the best account of a making a recording that I have ever read or expect to read.

February 7, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the highlights of the last concert season in Madison was the appearance by pianist Jeremy Denk (below) at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Denk, you may recall, played the same mammoth program here that earned him praise and astonishment when he played it at Carnegie Hall, and on short notice as a fill-in for Maurizio Pollini: J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations followed by Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 1. (At Carnegie, I think it was Ives’ second sonata, the famous “Concord” Sonata he played.)

He also gave a supremely articulate, accessible and convincing lecture about pedaling in Chopin at the University of Wisconsin School of Music (below).

And at the Wisconsin Union Theater he took part in a public workshop on blogging (The Ear got to participate) and gave an insightful  master class to young piano students (below). Look at his blog “Think Denk” and you will see why. He writes very well and very knowledgeably about music and matters related to music.

Here is a link to his blog, the latest entry of which discusses what I talk about below:

But if you need more proof, I suggest you read his account in the most recent issue (Feb. 6, 2012) of The New Yorker Magazine, where classical music blogger and big-name guru Alex Ross (author of “The Rest Is Noise”) has openly expressed his admiration for Denk and may have played, I suspect, some role in getting Denk’s story published.

In “Flight of the Concord,” with great detail and subtlety, with humor and philosophy as well as self-deprecating criticism, Denk writes up a recording session that is simply the best account of a recording session I have ever read—or expect to read.

It covers everything from finding the right interpretation of the music to be recorded (Ives, in this case, hence the wordplay headline): discussing the role of recorded versus live music; waking up the morning of the recording session; shopping for food to get you through the grueling ordeal of a recording session; dealing with piano repairs and tune-ups; and reacting to the recording many weeks after it has been made. And it isn’t full of jargon and Music Speak.

Here is a link:

The article is also particularly well timed because Denk will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 next Thursday in Carnegie Hall and has just released a chart-topping, all-French album of violin sonatas (“French Impressions” on Sony, below) that he made with superstar violinist Jeremy Bell. (Indeed, several years ago, Denk made his debut in Madison as the partner of Joshua Bell in a memorable recital.)

By the way, it is a great recording – with wonderfully muscular reading of French precision, subtlety and finery that remains convincingly French. The piano-violin balance is superb and the repertoire is sure-fire:  Sonata No. 1 by Saint-Saens, and the bluesy Sonata by Ravel’s Sonata and Franck’s famous Violin Sonata in A major.

But Denk has also recorded another album of violin and chamber music as well as a CD of both Ives sonatas and the last three Partitas of J.S. Bach.

The Ear hopes this promising young artist records a lot more repertoire, both contemporary and traditional. His combination of passion and intelligence is rare and welcome. And he is a really nice guy, which I can say speaking from personal experience. It says something that he gave a wonderful performance here even after his laptop, with so many notes and research, was stolen the day before he performed. That is poise!

Here is a link to a great, well written and colorful profile of Denk — an unabashed Francophile in many areas, but especially literature — that appeared in The New York Times:

And here is a sample of Denk’s playing — Ligeti — and a sample of his commentary:

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