I know Jeremy Denk's playing from broadcasts of his frequent appearances at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. He is not a spectacular pianist (who is?), but he is an intelligent, reflective musician who often has interesting things to say about the music he plays. And judging by his recent essay in the New Yorker magazine, he can be as eloquent at the computer keyboard as he can be at the keyboard of the piano.
Denk's thoughtful and often disarmingly honest essay, which relates the perils of making a studio recording of Ives's "Concord" sonata, is the most attractively intelligent way I can think of for a musician to promote his new recording. I hope Denk's CD outsells Lang Lang. I really do. But I am not going to buy it. In fact, I will not even listen to it for free (if my public library acquires a copy) because my attitude toward studio recordings, expressed frequently in this blog, is far more negative than Denk's wistful lament quoted above. It is the attitude of bottomless contempt.
I feel puzzled by Denk's conflicted, if not outright incoherent, perspective on studio recordings: he laments their "terrible" effect on "precious live performance", yet proceeds to invest considerable time and effort in making one of those "manicured artifacts, from which the essential spectacle of human effort has been clipped away". I am puzzled because Denk's live recordings of Bach, Ives and Ligeti (from the Aspen Festival, and also from his recitals at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston) show that he can give technically impressive, tonally seductive, and interpretatively compelling public performances of the most demanding music. If such performances do not happen at every recital, that's just the price of trying to enrich music with "the essential spectacle of human effort". Instead of spending hundreds of hours manipulating hundreds of takes in the editing room of a recording studio (and later lamenting the artificiality of the final product), Denk would be artistically much better off recording his public recitals (which can be done inexpensively these days) and letting the microphones hunt for those special occasions on which his playing, even if not note-perfect, fully communicated his love and passion for the music he chose to perform.