In a spoken introduction, Jeremy Denk said he juxtaposed the first three works to contrast their composers’ different perceptions of time. He began with Mozart, the A-minor Rondo’s sorrowful aspect unusual for a work in that form. Denk’s crystalline rendering of delicate runs, grace-notes and other ornaments was outstanding, and he then threw himself into Visions fugitives – twenty varied vignettes – with great intensity, his gestures and facial expressions adding zest to the many witty surprises that pervade this delightful music, including X (Ridicolosamente), which lives up to its marking. In the final number, Denk created a shimmering aura. In the initial movement of Opus 109 Denk retained the optimism of its opening passage even as he navigated between Vivace and Adagio, teasing us with the persistent elusiveness of the downbeats, a rhythmic characteristic that also arose at times in the ensuing Scherzo, to which Denk imparted drama. The Finale was the highlight. The Theme, one of Beethoven’s most wonderful creations, sang out gloriously; Denk then played the Variations with concentration, the trill-laden VI building to a climax, after which the return of the Theme with utter simplicity was emotionally overwhelming.
Following intermission, Denk announced that he would not play Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (his Opus 98), but explained why he “would have played” that work, illustrating the connection between the song-cycle and Schumann’s Fantasy, the latter originally conceived as a love letter to Clara Wieck, at a time when her disapproving father was keeping them apart. She really was his distant beloved, making Schumann’s use of material from the Beethoven appropriate. Denk brought out the deep romanticism of Schumann’s tender expression and then gave an energetic account of the middle movement march, ably evoking the contrasting mood of its serene interlude, and in the slow Finale the piano was sweetly sounded, the closing passages rendered with great compassion and a sense of resolution, both poignant and harmonic. There were two encores: the Andante from Mozart’s C-major Sonata (K545) and the ‘Pilgrim’s Chorus’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser in a stride-piano arrangement by Donald Lambert that brought the recital to a rollicking close.