Jeremy Denk’s Top 5 Piano Works

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

American pianist Jeremy Denk is known for his audacious programs (Ives and Bach, the Concord and Hammerklavier Sonatas) as well as his thoughtful observances on music, which his shares on his blog, Think Denk. This week he joins Joshua Bell in Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival and takes on Beethoven and Liszt for A Little Night Music. Before he hit the stage, Denk shared his list of the piano works occupying his thoughts. Here are Jeremy Denk’s top 5 favorite piano works to play right now:

1. Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 1 sat on Denk’s piano for some time before he discovered it was the piece he had been searching for. “It’s very satisfying to just sort of have the piece under control, like a bucking bronco,” he says. Full of roaring ragtime dances, tender hymns “and the most amazing version of ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’,” it’s not as monumental as the more famous, No. 2, the "Concord Sonata." Denk explains: “It’s a piece that suits me personally.”

2. A recording of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 15 led Denk to want to put his own imprint on the piece. He has played it frequently in solo recitals during the past year, “and it’s incredibly virtuousic. It’s one of the weirdest and wildest things that Mozart ever wrote," he says. “It’s an example of a piece that’s haunted by its own undoing. They’re threatening to fall apart all the time.” Mozart references the past, with allusions to Bach, and the present, with references to the sonata form and the future: “It has the most astounding shifts between major and minor which are very proto-Schubertian,” Denk says.

3. One of the works Denk will play at his Little Night Music concert program, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 (Op. 111) is unusual for it’s two-movement structure. “They kind of hinge off of each other [in a] very crucial dialectic thing where we have this short stormy question [in C-minor], and then you have this endless C-major answer which is kind of the opposite in every imaginable way of the first movement,” Denk says. In the second movement Beethoven takes the piano on an extreme theme and variations: “And then he injects this theme and then he divides it in two and then divides it in two again. In some of the variations he almost foresaw jazz. Then they have the reward at the end which is that the theme that’s lost is found and that’s the most extraordinary, almost Proustian moment of the piece.”

4. Even though pianists around the globe have unfurled their Chopin sheet music to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth, Denk hasn’t consciously participated: “For me it’s Chopin fever all the time,” he says. “I love to sit for an afternoon and think about his pedaling. It sounds really nerdy, but you can really get a lot of oohs and aahs around the sensitivity of his pedaling.” And the Polonaise Fantasie marks, for Denk, a pinnacle of the piano repertoire. “I was always a piece that I wanted to play even when I wasn’t playing it,” he says. “There’s this amazing middle section in B-major which is just unearthly beautiful and reminds you why you play the piano.”

5. “Bach covers it all. The whole cosmos of human emotion; joy and sorrow and everything.” Denk will often pair the Goldberg Variations with Ives’ first piano sonata. But it’s the Toccata in F-Sharp Minor (F-Sharp Minor) that made the final slot on the list. “It’s a younger improvisational and audacious Bach. It’s a piece that I played as a student, and I wanted to return to it. I love it.”

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