Finally, Denk has made a recital appearance in Berkeley. Unfortunately, the Real Doctor couldn’t make it—she was in Michigan—so I went with my piano technician, who is a pretty brilliant pianist and a composer to boot. The advertised program was intimidating: the Ligeti Etudes (nearly an hour of avant-garde puzzles and brain-games, conveyed through finger-breaking keyboard pyrotechnics) and the Bach “Goldberg Variations” (same, only read “Baroque” for “avant-garde”). It was almost a relief that there was an announced program change. Book two of the Etudes would be replaced by the meaty (but less mental) “Dante Sonata” by Liszt.
The Ligeti Etudes are avant-garde music that you can love. They are not easy listening, minimalism or neoromanticism; these are mid-century Mitteleuropean modernism. Nonetheless, they give even the first-time listener enough to hold onto that one can follow through each piece—in some places, there are even things reminiscent of melodies. Most of the etudes are clearly about one thing—relentless upward scales, an overall downward motion, a constant, pushing eccentric rhythm. They tend not to be massively written, and in some the texture becomes transparent to the point of nothingness. However, these are not “pink bonbons stuffed with snow” (as Debussy described the music of Grieg). These etudes are precise, spiky, but strangely elegant blooming cactuses. Denk delivered these bristling packages cleanly, highlighting the hooks that rescue the first-time listener. His touch was sure, and he found an astonishing number of shades of “piano” in the quietest passages. I came away from the performance hoping that at least half of what we heard become standards in the repertoire.
Announcing the Liszt from the stage, Denk highlighted the parallels between the diabolical theme in the “Dante” sonata and the descending motif in the last etude; this was perhaps a stretch, but no matter. Despite the title (“Fantasy-Sonata after a Reading of Dante”) it’s not the deepest stuff that Liszt ever wrote. It’s programmatic to the point that it requires little imagination, and chockablock with Lisztian pianism. After the rigors of Ligeti, listening to the Liszt was like reading a satisfyingly pulpy piece of genre fiction after plowing through imagist poetry. However, it was not really Denk’s strong suit. It was not badly played, but nor was it especially memorable. For example, things could get muddy in the sections of greatest turmoil. However, it must be said that the quieter sections of “Heaven” showed some absolutely lovely playing and tone.
It’s audacious to program the Goldberg Variations in a recital. According to legend, the piece was designed to put its insomniac dedicatee to sleep. It’s a very long piece, and also a substantial mental challenge. Every third variation is a canon, each on a different interval. Sometimes the canons are inverted, sometimes they are dilated, or augmented—Bach plays every trick he can. The ending is a double quodlibet, in which two different tunes are superimposed over the ground of the theme. The paths of least resistance are to turn the piece into a dry exercise, or treat it with so much solemnity that it really does work as a soporific. Given Denk’s intellectual bent, I almost expected this.
However, Denk also has a wickedly sharp sense of humor. His was a very fleet Goldberg Variations. Some of the spaces between contrasting variations were pressed a little, as if to keep the listener off-balance; sometimes repeats were omitted to keep proceedings moving right along. The playing was always transparent and articulated, and when solemnity was called for, it was delivered. On the whole, though, the Bach who wrote Denk’s version of the Goldberg Variations was a keen wit who was not above pointing out that he was a keen wit—when the quodlibet rolled around, the two rather earthy folksongs were really punched out. Denk’s Goldberg Variations will stay in my memory as one of my favorite perfomances of this piece, but reflecting on it the next day, I felt almost as though I had heard the Goldberg Variations written by the smart, sardonically funny Beethoven who wrote the Diabelli Variations.
It’s nice when things live up to the anticipation. This wasn’t the greatest concert ever, and Denk’s mannerisms can be a bit distracting. But, as expected, the recital was stimulating and rewarding. So, now I am anticipating the next time this pianist comes out west. And, I am hoping he plays some Beethoven, maybe the Diabelli Variations.