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In fact, it was while I was reading Denk's liner notes for his new solo album, Ligeti/Beethoven (Nonesuch), that his music jumped to life for me. Not that the performances on this lovely recording are lifeless in any sense of the word, but his discussions of György Ligeti's piano etudes are so poetically precise that the pieces seemed to open up for me in new ways. After writing about the function of etudes as often tedious technical exercises, he discusses the deliberate perversity in Ligeti's etudes—Book One, which he composed in 1985, and Book Two, between 1988 and 1994—with obvious admiration for their ingeniousness. Below is just one example of Denk's terrific prose from those liner notes, which you can read in their entirety here:
One of the recurring goals of piano exercises is independence—the independence of one hand from another, and the ability of each finger to do its work separately. In this first Étude ["Désordre"], Ligeti chooses a simple way to put your left and right hands at odds: the right hand plays only the white keys, the left only black keys. Ligeti takes brilliant advantage of the arbitrary: The mere fact of there being more white keys (seven) than black keys (five) ends up creating a specific sound, a unique harmonic language. Ligeti exploits (here and elsewhere) the etudes obsession with independence of hands as a pretext to explore different sound worlds—almost like weather fronts—colliding with each other.
For much of the past decade Denk has been a close collaborator of acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell, and earlier this year they released their first duo recital together, French Impressions (Sony Classical), which includes sonatas by Camille Saint-Saëns, Cesar Franck, and Maurice Ravel. In the liner notes, Denk recalls how jaded he was about Franck's Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, but then writes that hearing Hungarian pianist György Sebök play the first four bars of the piece changed his perspective: "It was as if he did not press notes down, but pulled them out and up from the keyboard. The chords didn't seem to come from fingers."
On Sunday Denk performs a program called "The Collaborative Pianist" at Symphony Center, part of the CSO's ongoing Keys to the City piano festival. He'll play Schumann with tenor voice Nicholas Phan, Stravinsky's Duo Concertante with violinist Stefan Jackiw, and Dvořák's Piano Trio in F Minor with Jackiw and cellist Katinka Kleijn.
Below you can listen to Ligeti's "Cordes à Vide," from Book One:
photo: Michael Wilson
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