In Duke University’s Reynolds Theater, for Duke Performances, Jeremy Denk took on the physically and mentally challenging task of performing Ligeti’s Études and Bach’s Goldberg Variationsin the same concert.  His mastery of technique was certainly inspiring. Ligeti wrote the études to help cure his own inadequate piano technique. Denk prefaced the concert by explaining his choice of program. He highlighted the relationship between math and music. Just as the étudesreflect Ligeti’s study of geometric patterns of fractal mathematics and algorithmic processes, Bach’s Goldberg Variations are extremely complex and symmetric. All are based on the same harmonic progression and theme. The program order was fantastic. Hearing Bach follow the étudeswas so refreshing!

Ligeti’s Études are renowned for their difficulty, and Denk performed the first two books of them with a high level of understanding. He consistently led the listener’s ear to what was important. His apt expression of the title of each étude was coupled with an effortless technique. For example, during “Vertige,“the sensation of dizziness was nicely apparent. Another highlight was “The Devil’s Staircase”; the push and effort to reach the top was infectious. The listener was right there with the pianist as the notes climbed towards the top of the piano without ever reaching it. Denk was indeed correct when he stated how these pieces are a breakthrough in 20th-century piano literature.

After the intermission, Denk performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was clear that he deeply understood the organization of the set. Denk’s special attention to each variation was evident, and his technique was again admirable. He really displayed two types of variations – those that are bold and vibrant, and those that contained more lyrical themes. His performance was very captivating, yet at times the contrast between the two major characters of the variations may have been too drastic to achieve the desired consistency within Bach’s masterpiece. However, the contrasts in character that he found were enlightening. He showed an admirable balance between presenting the big picture of the piece and understanding the details.

Despite any slight inaccuracies, the ability to present both the Ligeti Études and the Bach Goldberg Variationsin the same program demanded quite the talent. Jeremy Denk received a standing ovation and responded with an encore, playing one of the études heard earlier, this time from memory. It means something to mention that this concert will be repeated February 16 in New York City, in Carnegie Hall, and it is sold out.  The concert-goers in New York City are in for a fabulous evening full of technical feats and deep musicianship.

Editor’s Note: We provide tag-team coverage of this concert due to disruption of rail travel impacting Ms. Bjork on February 12. Thanks to Erica Rogers for her assistance and collaboration.