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Saturday, August 1, 2015

Concert Review: The Sinister Urge

Jeremy Denk at Mostly Mozart
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Jeremy Denk played Mostly Mozart on Friday night.
Photo from JeremyDenk.net © 2015 Nonesuch Records.
The Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin is one of the most challenging pieces to perform for great length (14 minutes) and technical demands on the solo performer. On Friday evening, pianist Jeremy Denk opened his appearance at this year's Mostly Mozart festival with an even more difficult version of this piece: the transcription for solo piano written by Johannes Brahms, designed to be played by the left hand only.


Brahms wrote this transcription for Clara Schumann, the widow of his friend Robert Schumann and the romantic obsession that gripped him for much of his life. This transcription uses one hand to keep the work on one stave, following the original work closely but creating new textures and musical ideas thanks to the expanded dynamic range of the keyboard. As Brahms put it:

"On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."

In a darkened Avery Fisher Hall, Mr. Denk gave an astounding performance, capturing all the complexities of Bach's counterpoint as filtered through Brahms' own aesthetic. His left hand articulated the violin ideas in the second and third octaves of the keyboard, playing dazzling fugal textures and maintaining a firm singing line throughout the breadth of the movement. Each new repetition of the chaconne brought new ideas from both Bach and Brahms, showing the value of the transcription process: it enables artist and listener to reimagine and re-examine a work in fresh and exciting ways.
The Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor  followed, with Mr. Denk playing Brahms' own cadenzas. This is one of the most rigorous and sober-minded of the Mozart concertos. Conductor Louis Langrée was quick to emphasize the deep emotional meaning of the opening phrases. Mr. Denk's first entry was gentle and questioning until he unleashed a flood of arpeggios, with the orchestra providing brisk responses. Each cadenza added to the complexity of the whole, maintaining the work's heroic character and sense of pre-Beethovenian struggle.

Mr. Denk was even better in the slow, sweet song of the central movement, playing this famous theme with gentility and grace as the orchestra provided expert support. The final Allegro allowed the pianist to finally unleash, (with both hands!) and engage in the call-and-response of the final Rondo. In its coda, the sun finally broke through the D minor gloom, with Brahms' athletic solos providing momentum and drive. Following this performance, Mr. Denk obliged with an encore, an engaging and subtle performance of one of Bach's Goldberg Variations, its famous theme cleanly phrased in the figured bass.

The audience returned after intermission to find an expanded Festival Orchestra onstage for the Brahms Symphony No. 4 This is Brahms' final and most revolutionary symphony, a work that uses ideas from the 18th century in a thoroughly modern way. The opening movement with its short string and wind figures built into a mighty series of thrusts, undermined only by some slightly off-balance horns and trombones in the early thematic statement, but stabilizing and emerging into a coherent whole. The Andante was much better, with its choir of horns and trumpets sounding true over the plucked ostinato accompaniment. Together, horns and winds created a hushed mystic sheen of sound, a combination and idea that would resound throughout the music of the century to follow.

The short third movement takes the form of a Scherzo although one written around what sounds almost like a baroque dance. With its pounding timpani and ringing triangle (placed at opposite sides of the stage) this rode a wave of warm, chesty string tone and articulated wind playing, showing the strength and power hidden in this movement. The work closed with the elaborate final Chaconne, with four chords that give way to thirty dizzying variations. Mr. Langrée led his orchestra in a passionate and articulate performance, allowing the actual thematic material to emerge from the variations and setting up the new theme and opening chords in a compelling closing argument.


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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.