Last Sunday I trekked through the steady rain to Berkeley, to hear Jeremy Denk play Ligeti and Bach. I'm sitting in Hertz Hall, feeling both damp and overheated, and it gets to be almost fifteen minutes after the start time, and I'm starting to wonder what's going on, even though, honestly, I don't really have anyplace else to be, when Matias Tarnopolsky, the Director of Cal Performances, comes out, apologizes for the delay (which he says is weather-related), and then he says that there is a slight change to the program: instead of both books of the Ligeti Etudes, Denk will play only the first book, minus the third piece, followed by Liszt's Dante Sonata. No reason was given for the change. Sadness! It was Ligeti that led me to buy a ticket and brave the rain! And though we are indeed getting a first half filled with Hungarian virtuouso pieces, still. . . . The second half remains the Goldberg Variations, so no complaints from me there. And we are invited to stay afterwards to hear John Adams talk with Denk.
Denk comes out and sits at the piano for a moment, and then says they need a rack. The missing rack is found and put on the piano so he can put his music there. And then he starts playing. He snaps right into it, without any posing or fussing caused by the delays and the necessary adjustments. The first etude is strong and bright and rhythmically forceful in a way that makes me think it an embodiment of everything the Italian futurists ever dreamed of. The second etude, by contrast, is dreamy but muscular rather than languid. I don't keep notes during concerts, so I'll just say the rest of the etudes made me wish we were getting the whole set.
Though I certainly enjoyed the Liszt, still, as I reflected last season when I heard the SF Symphony performing the symphonic poem Tasso: lamento e trionfo, listening to Liszt is sort of like reading Shelley, in that it can be difficult for us moderns to distinguish what was once bold and original but has now become sort of an ur-text of generic Romanticism, and to distinguish those things from what was conventional even in its time.
After intermission came the strong and meditative flow of the Goldberg Variations. They were just wonderful, though I still mourned the dropped Ligeti etudes, which is admittedly greedy of me, especially since Denk, who had given us plenty, first repeated the Etude #5, Arc-en-Ciel, as an encore and then stayed for almost an hour talking with John Adams. Denk is a pianist who acts out – he throws his head back, he shuts his eyes, he pulls his mouth down into a grimace like the mask of tragedy, his eyes roll as if he's watching the notes physically fly past, he glances right at the audience but in an unseeing way, as if we're not there. It's not distracting (or it's easy enough to follow his example and close one's eyes if it is); it's fascinating and sort of enviable, to be so utterly absorbed in the physical act of playing and so drawn into that world of sound he's spinning around him. He seems to have a lot of nervous energy. He kept tapping his foot during the conversation.
The conversation with Adams was quite interesting and Denk is a thoughtful and graceful speaker. About half of the very full house stayed for the talk, though a number of them should have left, since checking their electronic toys was so very urgent and important. There was a rude amount of whispering during the conversation, too, though fortunately not during the music. I'm sure Messrs Adams and Denk were quite relieved that the old lady behind me kept letting us all know that she agreed with what they were saying. There was a lot of static and feedback from the microphones, so Denk and Adams had to keep remembering not to touch the bottom portion of the mikes.
Adams opened by talking about the effect of World War II on the composers who came of age during or right after the war – some, like Boulez, became very ideologically rigid, as if that was the only way to stave off chaos, whereas Ligeti, who had the same sense of the underlying seriousness and importance of art, rejected the deadening hand of ideological rigidity and had a kind of verve and wit throughout his musical career. They discussed the various influences on Ligeti, including jazz -- Adams described one etude (sorry, I don't remember which) as like Takemitsu remembering a Bill Evans tune. This was followed by an interesting and semi-technical discussion of how Denk learned these very challenging pieces, with their constantly shifting rhythms, and how the first etude was put together. At one point during the discussion of form Adams said he thought one of the difficulties of being a modern composer was that there were no standard forms (either to follow or rebel against, was what I took that to mean) – it’s sort of an anything goes time. There was quite a bit of discussion about this entry from Denk's blog.
Adams initiated an extensive discussion of Liszt by mentioning other composers who were deeply read in literature (Berlioz with Virgil and Shakespeare was one example) and asking Denk if he thought Liszt was a deep reader of Dante. It was clear Adams was not exactly simpatico with Liszt. Denk didn’t quite disagree, but pointed out the difference in sensibility from Liszt and his era to us and our era, and mentioned how the wide and partially absorbed influences on Liszt (musical and literary) all came out sounding like Liszt. Adams mentioned an episode from Cosima Wagner’s diaries: the Wagners were having a party, which Richard left early to go to bed. Liszt starting playing the slow movement from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, and when he finished they saw that Richard had returned, and was standing on the stairs with tears in his eyes. Adams, who was clearly restraining himself from just coming out and calling Liszt superficial, said it was difficult to imagine him playing the slow movement of the Hammerklavier so profoundly that it could make Richard Wagner cry. Denk pointed out that Liszt’s playing was a phenomenon of the days before recording and so forever lost to us and that it must have been something extraordinary. The Liszt discussion ended with a mention of some stylistic links between the last Ligeti etude he played, Automne a Varsovie, and the Liszt.
There were a few questions from the audience. Someone asked if Denk was planning to record the Ligeti etudes. He said he hoped to someday, after he had lived with the pieces for a while. His new Ives recording was mentioned; he’s a big fan of Ives (and he suggested that Adams was also an Ives fan, with perhaps some reservations). The last question was about the encore. Denk apologized for not naming it before playing it, and said that it was a repeat of the Ligeti Etude #5, Arc-en-Ciel. He said that the etudes go by so quickly when you’re listening to them that he thought it would be nice to give us another chance at that one; also, he had no idea what else to do as an encore after the Goldberg Variations. Very true on both counts!
Lovely afternoon, even if I can’t help regretting the lost Ligeti. . . .