At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday, Jeremy Denk — pianist, writer, thinker, and recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship — while acknowledging his predilection for programs with a theme (“or, if you’re feeling less charitable,” he said, “a shtick”), insisted that the afternoon’s recital was simply a collection of pieces that he loves. But affection creates its own web of correspondences. Denk’s choices revealed a fascination for works in which disparate and even contradictory ideas and moods could find common ground in sheer musicality.
Two sonatas by Mozart explored variances without and within. In the F major Sonata (K. 533/494), the ideas were historical: backward-glancing, Bach-like counterpoint woven into envelope-pushing harmonies. Denk correspondingly adopted a 17th-century touch — crisp, close-up, clavichord-like — but 19th-century phrasing, the tempo in constant, subtle fluctuation, keyed to Mozart’s slippery shifts of mode: major-key lift and minor-key ballast in tensile parity.