The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Jeremy Denk is named a MacArthur “genius.” Here is a sampler of his immense talent as displayed in concerts at the Wisconsin Union Theater, at NPR, in his blog “Think Denk” and on his latest Nonesuch recordings of Bach, Beethoven and Ligeti.

September 28, 2013
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, classical pianist Jeremy Denk (below) received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” this week. The stipend is $625,000 to be paid over five years and to be used for whatever the recipient wants, no string attached.

Here is a link to the MacArthur Foundation announcement (curiously, yet another year has gone by without any recipients from the UW-Madison):

http://www.macfound.org

Jeremy Denk 1

Several observations and interpretations come to mind.

One is that Jeremy Denk, a trained chemist as well as pianist, has already performed in Madison – TWICE – at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Both programs were mammoth undertakings. I met and worked with Denk both times, especially the first, and he is a remarkably deserving artist who is honest, droll, articulate and original. I also very much like his philosophy that radical music should stay sounding radical, no matter how many years later.

The first recital featured J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations on the first half with Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 on the second half. Whew!

While here for that concert, Denk, a master blogger as you can find in “Think Denk,” he gave a public master class for young pianists (below), a fascinating talk on pedaling in Chopin at the UW School of Music, and a panel on blogging. As you can tell, Denk is a terrifically gifted musician with many different achievements to his credit.

Jeremy Denk teaching 1

Then last season, Denk appeared again in recital, in Mills Hall, to a regrettably small audience, and he played Franz  Liszt and Bela Bartok, followed by J.S. Bach and Beethoven. It was nothing short of phenomenal and utterly convincing.

Both concerts were outstanding events.

And both events point to the wisdom of the Wisconsin Union Theater in finding and booking up-and-coming talent.

Not that Jeremy Denk is young.

At 43, Denk is a seasoned concert veteran and he has taken the time to make the music he plays his own. He is not fresh out of some competition win at 23 or 24, and still stretching to find his maturity and a personal point of view. He is writing a book for Alfred A. Knopf based, to be published this year, based on some articles (on making his first recording and on being a piano student under various teachers) that he wrote for The New Yorker magazine and on his blog “Think Denk.”

Denk is also a devout Francophile who loves Proust and Balzac as well as great food and drink. The Ear thinks that helps to explain the sheer beauty and sensuality as well as logic of his playing.

Jeremy Denk street 1 

If you have any qualms about the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series this year –which features violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below top) with the UW Symphony Orchestra under UW alumnus conductor Kenneth Woods on Saturday, Nov. 2, the Miro String Quartet (below middle, in a photo by Jim Leisy) on Friday, Feb. 21; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal tuba player Gene Pokorny with the UW Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, March 8; and pianist Inon Barnatan (below bottom) on Friday, April 18. The MacArthur’s high-profile recognition of Jeremy Denk is a good reminder to trust the WUD series, however unexpected its choices may seem.

Here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater series:

http://www.uniontheater.wisc.edu/season2013-14.html

Rachel Barton Pine

Miro Quartet Jim Leisy

Inon Barnatan

Here is a link to Jeremy Denk’s blog:

http://jeremydenk.net/blog/

And here are links to NPR, where Denk was an artist-in-residence  for a week and where you can hear both interviews and excerpts from his first Nonesuch recording of etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti and Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111; and excerpts from his CD and DVD of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (the famous opening Aria is at the bottom in a YouTube video) that will be released this coming week. (He also recorded a fabulous album of Turn-of-the-20th-Century French violin sonatas with Joshua Bell for Sony Classical.)

http://www.npr.org/event/music/155236091/in-practice-jeremy-denk

jeremy denk ligeti-beethoven CD

http://www.npr.org/2013/09/21/224429650/first-listen-jeremy-denk-j-s-bach-goldberg-variations

jeremy denk bach golbergs cd

Personally, The Ear hopes Jeremy Denk records a lot more repertoire, and soon, especially now that he is a house artist of the prestigious Nonesuch Records label, which gives the notoriously difficult-to-record piano  outstanding sonic engineering. Several requests come to mind: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, for which he is well-known; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503, which he is touring with right now; the six Piano Pieces, Op. 118, by Johannes Brahms; some shorter J.S. Bach preludes and fugues as well as various suites; some sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti; and some works by Frederic Chopin, preferably the thorny and often underplayed mazurkas and the ballades that are so rich for fresh interpretation.

Did you hear Jeremy Denk perform in Madison?

Have you listened to his recordings?

What do you think of Denk’s playing and writings?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: What recordings would you add to NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog list of its “Top Classical Recordings of 2012 So Far”?

July 26, 2012
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Many classical music writers — in newspapers, magazine and blogs — wait until the end-of-the-year gift-giving season to list their top picks of new recordings. And generally that works fine – which is why I also do that.

But it can be hard to keep track of a full year’s worth of new recordings.

Plus, that means a lot of catching up to do, a lot of listening in a short time if you want to hear them and judge them for yourself.

So I really like that NPR (to me, it was and remains National Public Radio) and its outstanding “Delayed Cadence” blog lists the best picks for the first half of the year. It’s kind of like celebrating your half-birthday.

They did it last year and they have done it again this year.

Here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/06/13/154911734/npr-classicals-favorite-albums-of-2012-so-far

You’ll notice that it is an eclectic list compiled by the ever-sharp Tom Huizenga (below), with a lot of different kinds of instruments, music and performers.

I am very pleased that it includes pianist Jeremy Denk’s debut solo album (below) for Nonesuch, which includes excerpts from Ligeti’s two books of etudes and Beethoven’s iconic last piano sonata Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor.

You may remember that the talented Denk – whose blog “Think Denk” is a favorite of mine and of acclaimed critic Alex Ross of The New Yorker. So it is small wonder that he writes his ow insightful liner notes for the CD. You may also remember that Denk spent a week in residence at NPR playing J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, which he performed here in Madison two seasons ago and also in Carnegie Hall to great acclaim. NPR also has included Denk (below) is its series of musicians that allowed NPR to peek in on their practicing.

Finally you might recall that Denk is booked on the upcoming season of the Wisconsin Union Theater to perform next spring, and in an interview with The Ear said he might perform Brahms (“Paganini” Variations) and Liszt.

Here is a link to the Q&A Denk did with The Ear, who got to sit on a blogging panel with Denk two years ago:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/classical-music-news-pianist-jeremy-denk-de-normalizes-classical-music-with-his-new-cd-of-beethoven-and-ligeti-and-points-the-way-to-the-future-of-recordings-with-one-that-deserves/

Anyway, I like the NPR list. But to mind, it is hardly exhaustive. I would also add the Pacifica Quartet’s second volume of “Music of the Soviet Union” (for the Chicago-based label Cedille), which couples a Shostakovich cycle with other Soviet-era composers such a Miaskovsky and Prokofiev.

Readers know s me a piano fan So I think I might also add new piano albums by Benjamin Grosvenor, the British pianist who is the youngest pianist ever signed by the major label Decca and who performs Chopin Liszt and Ravel for his debut; and by Inon Barnatan, the acclaimed young Israeli pianist whose playing shines rhythmically and propulsively in his debut album for Avie called  “Darkness Visible,” with music by Debussy, Ravel, Ades and Britten.

What new recordings would you add to the “Best Recordings of 2012 So Far” list?

Leave your nomination in the COMMENT section. I will thank you and so will other readers.


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
3 Comments

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.


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
2 Comments

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:

http://jeremydenk.net/blog/

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:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/02/06/120206fa_fact_denk

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:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/arts/music/03denk.html?pagewanted=all

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


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