There were several ways to look at the program of Jeremy Denk’s Saturday recital at Jordan Hall. You could see it as opening with Hungarians (Bartok and Liszt) and closing with Germans (Bach and Beethoven). You could hear sensuousness dominate the first half, a more austere tone in the second. Or you could perceive a maze of connections among four composers who both embodied their present and anticipated the future. Or, finally, you could hear the first three-quarters of the program as a giant prelude to Beethoven’s final piano sonata, Op. 111, of which Denk gave a revelatory performance.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, something to be avoided when Denk is the subject. He is not only a superb and insightful pianist but an eloquent and insightful writer, who takes no small pleasure in deflating the stuffier aspects of music writing. Every concert reviewer should read the Mad Libs version of concert reviewing on his blog, Think Denk. It is extremely funny; it should also induce at least a little trepidation.
Let’s put such misgivings aside, though, and report that Denk began Saturday’s Celebrity Series recital with Bartok’s rarely played Sonata. Often played for sheer percussive intensity, the Sonata here sounded opulent, its rhythms crisp and jazzy rather than barbaric.
Some moments were so witty they could almost have come from Gershwin, but for Bartok’s acerbic dissonances.
Out of Liszt’s vast body of piano music Denk constructed an ingenious four-piece suite that began with earthly suffering — the prelude on Bach’s cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” — and moved to the “angelic grace on earth” of the “Petrarch Sonnet No. 123.” The heart of it was the “Dante” Sonata, an action-filled portrayal of inferno, purgatory, paradise, and much else in between. The tone painting is not subtle — in the inferno section he hammers repeatedly at the diminished fifth, which used to be called “the devil’s interval.” The ending conjures a huge organ-like sonority to inform you of your heavenly arrival. How to out-paradise Paradise? Only with the arrangement of Wagner’s “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde,” which was the suite’s conclusion.
Denk played all of this with astonishing command of the sheer torrent of notes. But what stood out was the control and relative restraint of his playing; he clarified textures, refused to linger over the biggest, flashiest moments, and streamlined the rhetoric whenever possible.
It’s debatable whether any Liszt playing can be described as self-effacing, but if it’s possible, Denk achieved it. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor, the last in Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, was plaintive and beautiful. In the Beethoven that followed, Denk heightened the tensions between the sonata’s two movements.
The first was nervous and edgy, the music almost seeming to rush ahead of itself. What was so masterful about the ethereal second movement was Denk’s pacing, the natural way in which each section flowed into the next and never lost a steady sense of forward momentum. A movement shot through with change seemed to unfold in one single, long expressive breath, as it approached infinity.
There was a single encore, the 13th of Bach’s Goldberg Variations — just enough not to disturb the vibrations left by the Beethoven. Denk told the Globe recently that he deplores the “myth-making” aspect of music writing, but it would be foolish to understate how remarkably talented he is.