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The venue was the acoustically fine concert hall of the Porter Center at Brevard College. The artist was the young and gifted concert pianist Jeremy Denk. The program was Charles Ives' "Concord" Sonata and Ludwig von Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata. But where was the audience? A mere 120 people rattled around in the 700-seat hall.
On November 11, Denk will deliver the same program in Zankel Hall of Carnegie Hall. That concert was mentioned in the New Yorker and proclaimed a Critics' Pick by New York Entertainment magazine. Something is profoundly wrong with Porter Center concert management when a program of such importance is so poorly attended in Brevard. No one is doing even rudimentary marketing and public relations.
But at least those 120 in the audience were blessed with a brilliant performance of a fiendishly difficult coupling of two mind-bending sonatas. Denk’s program notes were distributed only five minutes before the concert began, due to another administrative error, and he compensated for this by delivering a highly informative ten-minute introduction to the Ives, and after intermission a six-minute introduction to the Beethoven. Denk is an insightful writer with a highly acclaimed music web blog “Think Denk” and he proved to be an equally good spokesperson for the two composers.
Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2 ("Concord, Mass., 1840–60”) has four movements labeled "Emerson," "Hawthorne," "The Alcotts" and "Thoreau." The work is a quintessentially New England composition by a quintessentially New England composer, individualistic and uncompromising. One generally thinks of Ives as flinty and direct, but the romantic and emotional are never far from the surface in his works. Seldom have I heard Ives’ gentleness and humanity better presented than in Denk’s presentation of the “Concord.” I was often reminded of the late mezzo-soprano Jan de Gaetani singing Ives’ songs. With exquisitely detailed voicing and pedal technique, Denk kept sotto voce passages clearly exposed while superimposing abrupt figures (such as quotations from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) that appear to represent inevitability intruding on the transcendental. In his introductory remarks, Denk mentioned a delightful morning hike along the Davidson River. In the fourth movement ("Thoreau") one felt the presence of nature, with wind stirring leaves and fish breaking the surface of a pond, counterposed with other motifs that spoke to human presence. Throughout the 44-minute sonata, honor and morality were celebrated as important to the dignity of life. I wished that the nation’s investment bankers could be sentenced to listen to Denk’s performance of this sonata until they understood its message.
Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major is an equally imposing and monumental work. Denk completed his remarks, sat on the artist’s bench and jumped immediately into the Allegro with a sense of urgency. The Allegro and Scherzo flashed by. Then the complex third movement was delivered in a singing tone, appropriately interrupted by Beethoven’s flashes of jazzy rhythms and subito forte emphases.
I felt there was too much sustaining pedal in the final movement. Fred Kirshnit, reviewing Denk’s performance of the “Waldstein” Sonatain the New York Sun, had observed the lengthy pedal depressions called for by the composer, and decided that Denk was correctly interpreting Beethoven by producing the resulting dissonant overtones. I would disagree; Beethoven was composing for a fortepiano with a shorter decay time than the modern pianoforte, and there are many places in Beethoven sonatas that the pianist has to “take it easy” to compensate for the difference in instruments. For my taste, I would have preferred lighter pedaling.
As an encore, Denk repeated a portion of the third movement of the Ives. We had, perhaps, only Amos Bronson Alcott and not the entire Alcott family this time.
In totality, this was a memorable performance of two revolutionary works for piano. I anticipate that the New York critics will agree.