At most piano recitals, the performer plays a lot of difficult music from memory, then vanishes without a word. Jeremy Denk has played concerts like that, but when he leaves the stage he has plenty to communicate about the experience. His writings about the musical life in The New Yorker and elsewhere have brought him an audience even among those who have never heard him play. When the MacArthur Foundation gave Denk one of its $625,000 Fellows awards last year, it cited "his eloquence with notes and words."
Denk's articles and blog posts aren't like program notes. They're witty personal narratives that feel as if they were being shared in person over coffee. They can turn silly, and their author can seem a bit clownish as he recounts the agony of the blown piano lesson or the umpteenth take in a recording studio. But then Denk will slip in perceptive remarks about Beethoven's Op. 109, or Charles Ives's Piano Sonata No. 2 "Concord" – the subject of his first New Yorker article in 2012.
Last year, after Nonesuch released Denk's chart-topping recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, he wrote an article for The Guardian that began with a discussion of how the piece was like Breaking Bad, which had just aired its last episode. "Breaking Bad is the Goldberg Variations of misery," he wrote. "How many terrible consequences can Walter White reap from his first bad decision?" Likewise, he continued, how many wonderful outcomes could Bach derive from the unvarying bass line he chose for the Goldbergs? (Spoiler alert: Thirty, plus the opening and closing theme.)
Denk may lull you into reading about baroque canons via an analogy with a hot TV series, but if you follow him into the concert hall he might just as easily throw you off balance. Consider his plans for Sunday's Koerner Hall recital in Toronto, during which he will alternate pieces by Franz Schubert and Leos Janacek, as if skipping around on his iPod.
"It's kind of a dance suite that I've put together," the American pianist says during a phone conversation, about his live mixtape of Schubert dances and excerpts from Janacek's unusually sinuous (for him) On an Overgrown Path. The pieces are nearly two centuries distant from each other, but they traffic in anxiety and ambivalence in ways that are sometimes strikingly similar, Denk says. "I want the audience to be unsettled, but in the right way. Part of the aim is this slight uncertainty: 'Is this Janacek or is it Schubert?'"
Denk has a fondness for happy endings – or as he says in that Guardian piece, "radiant" conclusions – and doesn't plan to keep his Koerner audience on edge all afternoon. The big work on the recital's second half is Robert Schumann's boisterous Carnaval, a youthful portrait gallery that contains "no regrets and no second thoughts."
The larger theme, however, is that Denk loves to set up poetic friction between the pieces he plays. On a tour that ended last spring, he paired the Goldbergs with Gyorgy Ligeti's equally taxing Piano Études, which the pianist had already matched on a Nonesuch recording with Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111. "Every grey hair I have comes from that tour," he says. Such is the cost, sometimes, of getting people "unsettled, but in the right way." To invert a comment by Albert Camus: To become unsettled is to begin to think, and maybe to engage with the same kinds of musical ideas Denk considers in his entertaining articles.
On the phone, he's more reserved than I expect from his prose, and especially from his blog, which can wander into a lengthy Carnaval-like portrait of a snooty waiter. After he mentions that Op. 111 is "one of the truly holiest pieces for me," I ask him how he would characterize it, expecting him to toss off something like his blog characterizations of the Goldbergs, as "a friend you have who always does everything right," or "the Martha Stewart of variations." Instead, he falls into silent thought.
"It's not like a person, it's more like a journey," he says at last. "It's about diametric contrasts. I guess the thing I find most amazing is that the first movement is consumed with the past, and is in a terrible hurry, and the second movement is consumed with the future, and is entirely patient. It's like this time paradox."
That's the kind of aperçu that distinguishes Denk's words on music, in that he's saying something important about the piece while connecting with ordinary life. We've all hurried and been patient, and obsessed about past or future. Denk invites us to think of one of Beethoven's greatest works as a grand tussle with those experiences of time, and does so both as a player and as a perceptive listener.
"When the theme returns at the end," he wrote in his Guardian piece about the Goldbergs, "you realize this is the last time you will hear that turn into bittersweet E minor (melancholy about melancholy), and also the last time you will experience the chain of fifths with which Bach escapes from it. I'll admit, it always chokes me up." The technical stuff is there, but so is the felt response.
Flight of the Concord, his New Yorker essay about recording Ives's sonata, was perhaps the perfect subject for a somewhat literary publication, in that the sonata is about a gaggle of American writers (Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau and the Alcotts) and their ideas. Denk smoothly segues between thoughts about Ives's ambitious musical portraiture and musings on his own ambition and inadequacies. The recording and editing sessions have a humbling effect that is painfully funny to read about.
"The comedy is built-in," he says. "Recordings are inherently bizarre, and they're going to bring out the worst in you, like playing Monopoly."
Denk wrote an opera libretto last year, for a comic opera with composer Steve Stucky, about Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in the afterlife, and about what happens when three chords walk into a bar (seriously). It was performed at California's Ojai Festival in June, and will show up at Carnegie Hall's 600-seat Zankel Hall in December. There are more words coming, though none for now on his blog, which he has suspended while he sketches a book for Random House. The subject is still in flux. He's searching for a theme that can carry him the whole way, he said, like a bass line that can support many variations, preferably in a major key.
Jeremy Denk plays in recital at Toronto's Koerner Hall on Sunday at 3 p.m., and at the Leacock Theatre of Calgary's Mount Royal University on Jan. 17.