A relentless cold, miserable rain apparently failed to deflate (no relation to Tom Brady) the number and ardor of the piano enthusiasts who showed up at Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium. The occasion was another presentation of hometown boy made good, Jeremy Denk, in Duke Performances’ ongoing Piano Recital Series. As Aaron Greenwald, Executive Director of Duke Performances, reminded us in pre-program remarks from the stage, Denk last played at Duke in 2012 with an extraordinary program featuring the complete Ligeti Etudes and J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. While the works on tonight’s program were quite far afield from those, his reliance on playing major compositions that could satisfactorily be cut up into smaller pieces was similar. So, if you didn’t like something, a different one would be coming along soon.

Although he spent much of his childhood in New Mexico, Denk was born in Durham, so it must be quite a gratifying experience to return and play, especially in an auditorium that once was considered a blight on the neighborhood but now has actually become legendary for its pristine acoustics and refined beauty. As if being a virtuoso pianist traveling all over the world is not enough for one person, Denk is also (just to name a few) an accomplished writer, music director of the Ojai Music Festival as well as recipient of the 2014 Avery Fisher Prize and a 2013 MacArthur Fellow (“genius grant”). You can read articles both by and about Mr. Denk by clicking here.

Upon opening the program (notes by Mr. Denk), I was struck by what at first appearance seemed to be a playlist that would seem to last at least three hours — and that was without listing all the sections of Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, which was to be played after intermission. The majority of the first half consisted of an ingenious device of a kind of “mixtape” or iPod shuffle (Denk’s description) of segments of works by Franz Schubert and Leoš Janáček. In his only words from the stage, except to announce the encores, Denk justified this unusual arrangement — for classical recitals — as the melding of two kindred spirits, although they were born nearly sixty years apart.  But first came the opener. Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/50 was perfectly positioned to awaken the masses as well as show off the prodigious technique and musicality of Denk. This three-movement gem was typical in its atypical surprises that accompany many of Haydn’s works. From the prideful staccato opening theme to the delicate adagio to the finger-twisting finale, Denk was in command of not only the notes, but the inner life of the music that the score can only hint at.

On the Overgrown Path, written between 1908-1911, is probably Janáček’s most well-known piano work, although that is somewhat faint praise when its general popularity is considered. The general characteristic of these fifteen pieces contained in two volumes is one of wistful remembrance, ranging from utter anguish to regretful recrimination. Schubert, whose generally miserable existence makes his voluminous and transcendent output that much more miraculous, was chosen by Denk as a comrade in a set which might be labeled “mainly melancholy.” He chose selections from Schubert’s Ländler, D. 366 & D. 790, Ländler & Ecossaisen, D. 734, Moments musicaux,D. 780 and a rollicking, upbeat Grazer Galopp, D. 925. So starting off with a Janâček selection from an andante of the second volume (only the ten selections of the first book has evocative titles), Denk alternated Schubert and Janáček. There were remarkable similarities in these two composers that are not normally thought of together, and even Schubert’s harmonic language at times presages the Czech master who flourished until 1928. Titles like A Blown-Away Leaf, They Chattered Like Swallows and the heart-wrenching Words Fail! brought Janáček’s somewhat depressive vision to the listener with the suggestive title aiding the musical painting. Despite “Landler” indicating a type of German waltz, which usually connotes a happier spirit, some of these works by Schubert can be as much of a downer as anything Janáček has to offer. I found this programming to be quite exhilarating as you not only had a chance to constantly compare the two composers for about forty minutes, but you were on an emotional roller coaster, all expertly driven by Mr. Denk.

As a non-pianist it’s wonderful to discover a piano work that I had previously not known that moved me so profoundly. I wouldn’t think that that would have been by Mozart, but I was proven wrong by a rapturous, secularly spiritual performance of his Rondo in A minor, K. 511. Unlike any rondo I’ve heard before, this grave and solemn masterpiece is almost indescribable in its pathos and beauty. Denk had many moments of jaw-dropping technical razzle-dazzle throughout the evening, but the statement of this theme was sublime. The Steinway sung as I had never heard it and he brought forth a beauty of tone and emotion that melted you. This embodied all that great playing should be.

Robert Schumann’s  Carnaval, Op. 9, is a staple of the repertoire that consists of twenty-one short pieces depicting masked revelers at a festival before Lent. It opens with great vigor and bombast as Denk seemed to outwardly take great delight in pinning us back in our seats after the intimate and reflective Mozart. The work proceeds as a kind of musical puzzle on four notes, although I truly doubt any listener can follow that. Considered nearly unplayable at the time, even by none other than his virtuoso pianist wife Clara, Denk was masterful in all aspects of this performance. He looked as cool and unfazed in even the most demanding segments as if he were tossing off a C major scale. More importantly, he conveyed the characteristics of each personality.  This was indeed a highlight of any piano performance ever to grace the stage of Baldwin.

But wait, there’s more! Not content with playing a brief lyrical favorite, or a display of technical bravura as an encore, Mr. Denk returned to play “The Alcotts” movement of Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata. Talk about unplayable pieces!  Perhaps fearing that this made the audience a bit too jittery to end the evening and drive home with, he concluded this memorable performance with one of the slower of the Goldberg Variations. Denk conjured up a world of simplicity and beauty that enveloped us like a warm blanket. The spirit of Bach was upon us.