Jeremy Denk is certainly a pianist with a gift for constructing thoughtful and intriguing recital programs. Presented by New York’s 92Y – though live-streamed from the Hume Concert Hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where Denk is on the faculty – his Sunday afternoon recital was indeed a fascinating lineup of contrasts and connections. Bookended by mighty C minor piano sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, a triptych of comparatively obscure works by American composers served as a wonderfully colorful interlude.

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Jeremy Denk
© Michael Wilson

Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 14 in C minor made for dramatic beginnings, accentuated by the pointed outlining of the C minor triad. A lyrical secondary theme offered singing contrast in due course, and one could certainly sense how Beethoven would be influenced by the stormy development. Played with stylish elegance, the major key Adagio was a calming respite before the exhilarating conclusion, firmly back in the tragic home key.

The first entry of the American sojourn turned to “Blind Tom” Wiggins. Despite his blindness, Wiggins boasted a prodigious piano technique and a repertoire of a purported 7000 pieces. While a slave on a Georgia plantation, he toured the States to enormous acclaim and sensation, in some cases invoking comparison to the reception of Liszt across the Atlantic. The Battle of Manassas depicts in cinematic detail the eponymous Civil War battle (and Confederate victory). Interpolations of Dixie, Yankee Doodle, Le Marseillaise, and The Star-Spangled Banner were heard in succession, heightened by a panoply of mesmerizing pianistic effects – humorously including percussive interjections in the bass. A breathless display of interlocking octaves brought matters to a calamitous close.

Joplin’s Heliotrope Bouquet followed, one of the composer’s handful of collaborative works, in this case with Louis Chauvin, the latter by all accounts a major talent, dying tragically young (among the earliest known members of the so-called “27 Club”). The lyrical melodies and languid melancholy showed Joplin at his finest. Though the composer preferred ragtime played in a strict march tempo, Denk made a convincing case for peppering Joplin rags with a modest swing.

In the late 1970s, Frederic Rzewski composed the Four North American Ballads for pianist Paul Jacobs, improvisatory-like works based upon American folk and protest songs, concluding with the impressive Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. Denk delivered the tone clusters in the keyboard’s lowest registers with ferocious relentlessness, eerily bringing to life the mechanistic monstrosities of industrial America. Fragments of melody began to take shape, eventually giving way to the titular blues tune. Echoes of the metallic hammering resurfaced in the upper register, yet seemingly it was the song of resistance that won this musical fight against oppression.

A few days shy of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, his final piano sonata brought the program full circle to conclude. With an arresting opening gesture, Denk built to chilling power and pathos, deftly navigating the fugal textures interleaved into the first movement’s remarkable architecture. In the finale, a simple germ of a rhythmic idea grew to magisterial complexity, climaxing in what Denk called an “uncanny transcendence” to close the program in a ray of bright light.

This performance was reviewed from the 92Y video stream