For Jeremy Denk’s piano recital Tuesday night at Union College, there will be no appetizers, desserts or refreshing little side dishes, just a couple of big entrees: In an ambitious and daring program, the 37-year-old will tackle two of the most daunting piano sonatas in the repertoire, Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” and Ives’ “Concord.”
“It’s kind of an exercise in wishful thing,” jokes Denk, a Manhattan resident who’s on the faculty of Bard College’s conservatory of music. But during a recent conversation, Denk’s focus goes beyond the difficulties of keyboard technique and the memory challenges demanded by the two pieces – each of which is about 50 minutes in length. Instead, he mused on the soul of the sonatas and the extravagant imagination of the composers.
“The `Hammerklavier’ and the `Concord’ each have a strong spiritual and literary core,” says Denk. “Both pieces are dealing with historical precedents and are deeply reverent to the past, but they also explode into a wild and even dangerous vision.”
In the Beethoven, Denk homes in on the colossal finale fugue. “Beethoven is trying to summon this fugue from all the history of music so far,” says the pianist. The last movement starts with “a bit of a Bach fugue, a wandering toccata and a syncopated improvisation which finally leads to the fugue with the strangest subject ever written. It goes on for measure after measure – and finally the second voice comes in and you go, `Good lord, how will he write a fugue to that?’ ”
In the midst of such dense and tangled writing, Denk spies an element not often associated with the composer: humor.
“It’s labeled `fugue in three voices with some license.’ I’m sure he meant that as a joke,” says Denk, pointing out the mathematical complexity of the writing. “Then he does everything with the subject – upside down, backward, upside down and backward at the same time. It’s an amazing feat.”
Denk says the piece has thoroughly gotten under his skin. “I’ve been practicing it a lot, humming it on the way to Starbucks, imagining it in my in the shower, before going to bed,” he says. “It’s been haunting me since my teenage years.”
He’s also found it helpful to spend time with the composer who inspired the Beethoven. “I’ve been doing a lot of Bach and it’s a natural connection to this piece. I view the `Hammerklavier’ as a giant homage to Bach, to both one up him or to glorify him,” Denk says.
Just as the Beethoven sonata honors and advances the work of his forebear, so too does the Ives. Yet rather than focus on Bach, Ives’ obsession lies with Beethoven. Throughout all four movements of the “Concord,” one hears again and again Beethoven’s most famous motif – the da-da-da-duhm of the Fifth Symphony.
There’s more than just that snatch of melody that links the Ives to the Beethoven: “The `Concord’ actually has a small amount of melodic material that’s obsessively treated, which is very Beethoven-like,” says Denk. “It’s exactly extremely compact in thought process.”
That’s Denk again going deeper into the composer’s personality, since succinctness is not an element associated with Ives anymore than humor is linked to Beethoven. In the case of the “Concord,” the music can certainly appear to ramble along, especially considering that many pages of the score lack bar lines, the notational convention used to divide time.
“The earlier version of much of those pages did have bar lines,” says Denk, who took a course in Ives while earning his masters degree at the University of Indiana. “A lot of classical performers wish we could erase more of the bars lines, so we could feel the music over the bar lines. They have a subtle influence of accents that we might not do if they weren’t there. Ives was conscious of that and he also had a psychosis of not wanting his music to seem too conventional.”
Flouting convention while embracing the masterpieces of the past is a rather apt description of Denk himself.
“I wish people could laugh more in classical concerts, and I wish more Beethoven performances were a bit more attune to his wild extravagant humor with out being silly,” he says. “In both the Ives and the Beethoven, there are upward and downward surges, from the most tragic to the most hilarious.”