Pianist Jeremy Denk performed a blazing Santa Barbara debut Saturday night in solo recital, the penultimate attraction for UCSB Arts & Lectures’ two-week Winter Festival. After first drawing the audience in with a rocking sonata by Béla Bartók, Denk quickly plunged into deep waters with a suite of works by Franz Liszt, and two “deadly serious” pieces (Denk’s own description) by J.S. Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.
A sizable portion of the near-capacity audience seemed to be notebook-toting undergraduates on class assignment; any rookie to classical music earned her stripes here. Yet I cannot think of a better initiator than Denk. Dressed in a black jacket, gray slacks, and a green shirt with open collar, there was no stuffy formality to the youthful 42-year-old. Indeed, Denk has made a name for himself not only as an impressive and intellectual pianist but also as an original, and often irreverent, writer on music. Onstage, he exudes both good-natured nonchalance and a solid sense of focus.
There was no gentle entrance, as Denk cracked into the evening with Bartók’s Sonata, Sz. 80 (1926). The driving duple beat of the first movement combines steady pulse in the left hand with surprising and extravagant statements in the treble, sounding like the perfect accompaniment for circus acrobats. Some pianists are impassive in performance, but Denk wears an expression of discovery, as though he were as much audience as performer. The stately and meditative mood of the second movement demonstrated Denk’s magnetic capacity to still the hall and draw listeners into his world of introspection.
A fantasy sonata based on Dante was at the center of a suite of four works by Liszt, a dramatic 15-minute journey through heaven, hell, and everything in between. But the heart of the program as a whole was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, a work that Denk has recorded recently, and toward whose beguiling and baffling mystery he has bent considerable intellectual energy. His extraordinary artistry (and his excellent introduction) gave us a glimpse of the infinity he gazes upon.