The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Pianist Jeremy Denk “de-normalizes” classical music with his new CD of Beethoven and Ligeti, and points the way to the industry’s future with a recording that deserves a Grammy. | May 21, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Pianist Jeremy Denk (below) – who says he is “obsessed with de-normalizing classical music” – is of one of the most promising and original musical talents not only in the US but also on the world scene.

And he is no stranger to Madison.

He first played here several years ago as the accompanist to star violinist Joshua Bell, with whom he recently toured Europe and recorded an outstanding album of French sonatas for Sony Classical.

Two seasons ago, Denk appeared at the Wisconsin Union Theater and performed a mammoth program of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and Charles Ives’ neglected Piano Sonata No. 1. He also held a master class for young piano students; participated in a blogging workshop; and gave a fascinating lecture on pedaling in Chopin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

A year from now, Denk will again perform on the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series, over in Mills Hall since the Memorial Union will be closed for two seasons while it undergoes major renovation.

A graduate of Oberlin College (where he major in chemistry) and the Juilliard School, Denk has many honors to his credit. He taught at Indiana University 1996-2002 and currently teaches at Bard College. For a week this winter, he was an artist–in-residence at NPR and you can go to http://www.npr.org to listen to him. His blog “Think Denk” (http://jeremydenk.net/blog/) is extremely well written with thought-provoking perspectives on music and is extremely popular. Acclaimed critic Alex Ross, of The New Yorker Magazine singles it out as among the very best.

Last week, Nonesuch released Denk’s debut CD for the label: It features Beethoven’s visionary last piano sonata, No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111, sandwiched in between selections of Gyorgy Ligeti’s fiendishly difficult two books of 20th and 21st century etudes.

It is a revelatory recording that The Ear expects to be nominated for and win a Grammy as well as several other international recording awards. Yes, it is that good. It is that landmark a recording with eye-catching black-and-white photography by Michael Wilson and with liner note by Denk himself.

I also think it is also an indicator of how the recording industry might once again find its commercial feet and reclaim its artistic soul by emphasizing connection among music works – by combing new music with old, or mixing works by very contrasting composers — and by offering listeners musicianship of an original sort rather than the same old celebrity and virtuosity of competition winners.

We need more dialogue between the past and the present – and that is exactly what the thoughtful and virtuosic Denk makes music do.

Denk recently e-mailed The Ear with comments about his new recording and his upcoming appearance in Madison:

What does the new recording for Nonesuch mean to you and to your career?

Who knows the answer to that question? You’d have to predict the future, probably. Obviously it’s a Good Thing. At the very least it means I am a very happy camper, and I went out for some excellent celebration drinks with my friends.

I guess the best part is that on some level it associates me with a group of musicians that I deeply admire and respect—among many others Richard Goode, Brad Mehldau—and even with the idea of Nonesuch, which often seems to be about music that doesn’t care to fit “normally” in the genre cubbyholes that tradition and habit have built.

I am sort of obsessed with de-normalizing classical music (for instance, in this case, making Beethoven sound even weirder by surrounding him with Ligeti). I guess it also can mean trying to play Mozart (or Brahms or whatever) in a way that makes it feel less familiar; so that the surprises in the music — the radical inventive qualities — re-emerge.   These radical qualities are certainly there, but the whole tradition and trapping of the classical concert (and even our education as musicians) can sometimes conspire to hide them!

I blame the metronome, among other things.  But Ligeti does amazing things with the metronome; he understands its “soul” (so to speak).

What plans for future releases and repertoire (Bach Toccatas, Beethoven Concerto No. 1, Chopin ballades and mazurkas you lectured about here) do you have with Nonesuch?

There are no completely definite repertoire plans, but the “Goldbergs” seem to be the favored option for the next project. This would make sense, since I’ve been playing them off and on the last several years.

Why did you pair Ligeti etudes and the Beethoven’s final Sonata, Op. 111? Do the both share some quality? How does pairing them change or enhance the listener’s perception and appreciation of each composer or piece?

I had the hardest time cutting my liner notes down to size, partly because I had so many different justifications for this pairing.  To sum up, the super-duper Reader’s Digest Version: 1) They’re both “new music,” the Beethoven perpetually unsettling, a work which will never feel traditional; the Ligeti, a radicalization of tradition; 2) Op. 111 is an amazing portrait of infinity, a carefully constructed journey to eternity, and the Ligeti Etudes are an amazing collection of snapshots of the infinite; they’re both “friendly with ∞;” 3) Both the Ligeti and Beethoven are about complex dualisms of time, visions of time that are drifting apart.

One very important thing about the Beethoven that got cut from my notes:  The first movement seems very much in a hurry, kind of driven — this is the movement where Beethoven drags in the past very overtly (Bach, French Overture, fugue); whereas the second is very patient, very leisurely. In other words, it offers a beautiful paradox:  the movement that is consumed with the past is in a desperate hurry, and the movement that foresees the future is infinitely patient.

You will return next spring to Madison. Do you have a program in mind?

I am guessing good old-fashioned Brahms (below) and Liszt — the demonic side of Brahms, and all sorts of facets of Liszt from the sacred to the profane.  I recent re-fell in love with the “Paganini Variations,” one of the most inspired sets of variations in history.  I love Brahms when he doesn’t have to develop or do too much complicated thinking; when he must simply rely on inspiration, moment to moment. He really rises to these occasions.

I think you will be doing some kind of alternative time (lunch) -alternative venue (small concert space) while you are in Madison. Any comment?

I don’t know what it is, but I’m looking forward to it.

Is there anything you want to say about the recording, you, your career, the Madison date or the music scene in general, including your recent gigs on NPR?

I think my problem is certainly not saying too little.  A lot of my thoughts are on my blog, so many.  I’ve left quite a trail.  I hope my career is developing in a way that makes sense to someone!

As for the recording, it represents an enormous swath of my life, love and attention; I find Op. 111 to be one of the most affecting works of art, ever — period, end of story; I am always choked up and overwhelmed when Beethoven “re-finds” the theme in the second movement; it is something completely harrowing, completely redeeming.  It’s more like an experience than a piece of music.  It’s what music is for, if music is for anything.  And I think the Ligeti Etudes are equally astounding in a different way.

In short, there is no way I can make any reasonable, objective assessment of the record; it’s a bit like a limb that’s been cut away from me, and now, like it or not, it’s out in the world, doing its thing.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] Denk has always received high praise for his self-written liner notes, as well as his blog, Think Denk, but 2012 has seen his writing horizons broadened significantly. He was published in the New York Times Book Review in February as well as the New Yorker and NPR’s Deceptive Cadence in April, and an essay on Denk’s “Favorite Mistake” ran in this week’s issue of Newsweek (and can be read here). Also this week, a Q&A  interview with Denk that offers insight into Ligeti/Beethoven, as well a sneak peek into potential future plans, was published on the Well-Tempered Ear blog. […]

    Pingback by | — May 23, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

  2. This guy Rocks! He plays difficult music, but writes with clarity and vision. Brahms Pag Var’s are really wild stuff to be sure. Virtuosity needs to be at the service of the highest accomplsihments of composers from the past and present. Denk is leading the way here. Bravos all around!
    MBB

    Comment by Michael BB — May 21, 2012 @ 8:24 am


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