Like a promising matryoshka doll, Jeremy Denk's Tuesday night recital at the Kimmel Center kept revealing itself. The program's halves seemed split into the cerebral, Bach's
, and the deeply personal, Schumann's
. Each of these pieces released a series of smaller ones (18 movements in the Schumann, 32 in the Bach) from which sprang smaller and even more complex characterizations.
This was a makeup recital; the pianist's October appearance for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society was washed out by Sandy, its program of Brahms and Liszt now lost. But for a post-Sandy Hook audience, Bach's orderly universe and Schumann's private realm were solace, a discrete retreat. The score to the Schumann is annotated with an old saying: "In each and every age joy and sorrow are mingled: Remain pious in joy, and be ready for sorrow with courage."
Denk is particularly well suited to both works. His Bach is expressive, but not fussy or overthought. Technically unbothered by the work's more explosive spots and remarkably fluid in its scurrying passage work, he was able to make connections between and among bits of material that sometimes occur many seconds apart.
The mathematical and spiritual converge in the nocturnal 15th variation. Closely mapping the music and training your attention on the relationships between notes releases a kind of mystical peace, as if some force has pulled back the curtains to reveal the clockwork gears of the universe. Denk could have taken the variation more slowly and with notes more detached, as some others have done, but by moving his ideas in streams and using more dry articulation selectively, he was able to add a layer of meaning - as if emphasizing certain words in a sentence.
The Bach was mesmerizing, but the qualities Denk brought to Schumann were rarer. He changed tone with the mood - jumpy, lighthearted, glossy-smooth. In one movement, he wondrously evoked a harp; in another he highlighted the idea that the more you hear Schumann and Schubert, the more you understand Liszt's origins. The conversational "Mit Gutem Humor," in which male and female voices seem to argue, was admirable for its fully developed character sketches. But I doubt there's a pianist alive who, in the last dance, "Nicht schnell," could more convincingly make the case that sweetness and profundity are so closely related.