Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk Plays Ligeti & Beethoven

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American pianist Jeremy Denk is emerging as his generation's Alfred Brendel, offering cerebral but not dry programs and performances informed by a deep structural grasp of the piano literature. More than Brendel, he has a bent toward contemporary music. This fine release offers an excellent introduction to his work, with a pair of works that initally seem to stand in sharp contrast, yet on closer hearing reveal a host of connections. György Ligeti's two books of Etudes for piano appeared between 1985 and 1994. They appear here minus the concluding piece in Book Two, Coloana infinita, which Denk omits for no very good reason. The two books are separated by Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, a work in two large movements governed by classical tonality, while Ligeti's etudes, which fall into the long tradition that began with Chopin, are short, abstract works defined by technical devices on the piano. Outwardly they could not appear more different, yet Denk finds profound connections between them. Some appear on the surface; the end of Book One seems to flow motivically into the first movement of Beethoven's sonata. Some are a bit deeper and profoundly unexpected: the jazz influence in Ligeti, which he shared with few others of his ilk, is matched by the even stranger adumbration of jazz in the syncopated variation of Op. 111. Denk's program is one of the few to bring out just how staggering this particular passage really is. And some of the connections lie at the level of structural thinking that transcends style or historical context: many of Ligeti's etudes, as well as many of the variations in Op. 111, are about the emancipation of voices from each other, not in the sense of traditional polyphony but in that of putting the voices into different realms. As Beethoven's variations expand into unthinkable cascades of trills, they seem strangely of a piece with Ligeti's "Galamb borong" (track 7, based on Balinese gamelan music although the title has no meaning). A fascinating release, available on the widely distributed Nonesuch label.

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