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.
The touch remained in the A minor Sonata (K. 310), but the music’s expressive mismatch between classical proportion and tragic sentiment was rendered strikingly intense: the grace note launching the opening theme drawn out into a kind of melodic sprain, repeated notes and chords lashed like a penitent’s scourge. Even in quieter passages, Denk channeled a Mozart too compulsively buffeted by emotion for drawing-room propriety.
Three of György Ligeti’s piano etudes were more joyously voluble, seemingly incompatible technical ideas brought together with virtuosic matchmaking. “En Suspens” has two disparate time signatures repeatedly stumble into each other’s arms; “Galamb Borong” layers two different scales — one for each hand — into a chiming hybrid; “L’escalier du diable” makes two hands conjure the work of four, while its torrents of notes seem to tumble beyond the piano’s compass. Denk, in gregarious command, made the games kinesthetically enthralling.
Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze” (Op. 6) draw their contrasts from the composer’s own diverse personality: The boisterous Florestan and ruminative Eusebius, as Schumann named his own proclivities, oscillate through these 18 dances like an alternating current. It brought out the most singular qualities of Denk’s music-making, the way his ceaseless invention, his constant scrutiny of touch and tempo, creates the sense that the music’s shifts are almost involuntary, a surprise to listener, composer, and performer alike. It’s an illusion; Denk (and Schumann) always have a surplus of technique waiting around every seemingly unplanned turn. But it makes manifest the paradox that invigorates the repertoire: that notes foreordained, familiar, fixed on the page for centuries, can still take one completely by surprise.