Jeremy Denk
Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, Durham
Friday, Jan. 23, 2014

I inexplicably missed Jeremy Denk’s last concert in the Triangle, a Duke Performances set in February 2011 in which he played György Ligeti’s Piano Etudes Books 1 & 2 and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I’m still kicking myself just thinking about how amazing that concert must have been. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again, even in the midst of a downpour Friday night, and even though this concert bore no resemblance to that one. Denk did not disappoint.

In my interview with him in advance of the concert, he talked about building a mixtape out of related pieces by Janáček and Schubert. However, the idea of the mix ran throughout the program, making every piece feel like a combination of multiple composers and moods. Nowhere was this more apparent that his reading of Schumann’s Carnaval. The piece shows Schumann at his most expansively fragmentary, with movements starting in medias res and drifting off into the ether before reaching their conclusion. Denk did his best to bring out the contrasts, the stutters and the jump cuts within the work, relishing every odd contrast and dramatic shift. It felt unsettlingly modern, even if the harmonic language was firmly situated in the 19th century. And at times, Schumann felt not like one composer, but two or three or four. A similar effect appeared through Denk’s interpretation of the Mozart Rondo in A minor, a piece featuring one of Mozart’s most angst-ridden themes, full of “wrong” notes which Denk hung onto with glee. Denk transformed that theme, pulling it apart into multiple guises.

Denk prefaced his Schubert-Janáček megamix by noting that the pieces he had selected occupied a place where the minor key is consoling and the major key is unbearably sad. It was certainly true that both Schubert and Janáček felt more comfortable in the minor than the major, with the major key pieces at times coming off as somewhat trite. I was struck both by how easily the two composers complemented each other and by how different they were. In Denk’s hands, Janáček felt like a series of discursive digressions, romping wildly about in impressionistic blurs and melodies. Schubert, on the other hand, felt bound to some notion of the dance, swinging in the pocket with melodies to match. There were certainly moments where I wanted Schubert to go on longer, particularly during the Ländler, which seemed to pass by in a flash. Of all the segues and crossfades that Denk constructed during the set, the most powerful came at the end, where Schubert’s comically light Grazer Galopp crashed into the void of Janáček On the Overgrown Path, Book 2, Number 5. However, Denk drove home the connection by imbuing the Janáček with some of Schubert’s pace and energy.

Denk’s superb choice of encore, the slow movement from Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, sealed the night. Subtitled “The Alcotts,” this movement depicts the Alcott sisters at their spinet piano, playing a wide mixture of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, some hymns and more. It is, in a way, a kind of cosmic mashup, with the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (da-da-da-DUUUUUM) getting reconfigured and transformed by everything else. Denk brought out the humor of the piece, turning ever so slightly toward the audience at key moments, a kind of wink to let us know that he was in on the joke, too.