Many audience members at piano recitals prefer to sit on the left side of the house facing the stage so they can watch the keyboard and see the pianist’s fingerwork. I never get to Keyboard Concerts recitals at Fresno State early enough to grab one of those prime seats. And, besides, sitting on the other side of the house gives you a great view of the pianist’s face as he or she plays.
In the case of Jeremy Denk, who wowed an appreciative audience with a memorable concert Wednesday, I was glad to sit where I did. Denk is about as far from pretentious as you can get when it comes to his music — read his notable blog and you can see how he makes merry with some of the more poseuristic aspects of the genre — and he never grandstands while he plays. But to watch his face, his head, as he plays is revelatory: at times holding it aloft as if he’s inspecting the ceiling, shaking it back and forth at other times ever so slightly, his features practically quivering. Beginning with Bartok’s rarely played Sonata and continuing on with four Liszt pieces in the first half of the program, Denk truly caught me up in the moment, though that description pales compared to the music he made. The “Dante” Sonata, with its inferno section like a freight train roaring through, left me feeling as if a zealous spring cleaner had scrubbed away all the cobwebs in my brain.
But it was Denk’s triumphant performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, which concluded his program, that left the lasting impression. (He preceded the piece with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor, a major influence on Beethoven.) Denk took time before the piece to explain why he feels the piece is one of the most affecting moments in the classical music literature, speaking of Beethoven’s determination to go on creating groundbreaking music even with his reputation firmly cemented. Denk’s interpretation was somehow muscular and gentle and fierce and tender, all rolled into one, and the prolonged trill in the Arietta movement — which I swear nearly created sparks in the Fresno State Concert Hall — was something I’ll never forget. The sonata storms to a near cacophony of rhythmic turbulence and repeated key changes, but it manages, wondrously, to resolve. As Denk says, it’s as if Beethoven was telling us that no matter what happens along the journey, we are not lost.