Jeremy Denk: Think, Play, Love

Friday afternoon, I had the opportunity—along with busloads of elderly folks, school children, and members of eighth blackbird—to see the CSO under Michael Tilson Thomas accompany Jeremy Denk in Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto.

If you are unfamiliar with Jeremy Denk, you should read his blog and buy his Ives CD. Not necessarily in that order. He also has some tracks up on Spotify.

Beethoven's first 3 piano concertos each reference a different piano concerto by Mozart, the 3rd paying homage to Mozart's 24th, also in C minor. As such, the 3rd piano concerto falls in the period in Beethoven's output that still hasn't emerged from the shadow of the past. But instead of rebelling against it, chucking to the side, he deals with the past before moving on to the future.

You might expect a more Mozartian sound from Mr. Denk, but I found it to be more decidedly Beethovenian. That is, less delicate, more angsty, with rubato. But not quite Romantic. It's always a tricky balance: timbre vs. volume. Denk and the orchestra were always in balance, never even remotely in competition, but I would have liked a few more real pianissimos and the smoother, softer timbres that go with them.

Then again, Danny B is un peu trop.

So while a dedicated Mozartian might approach a concerto with cool detachment, Mr. Denk felt every note. He talks in his blog about what C Major means and seems to have extracted meaning (one possible meaning), real or implied, from every melodic idea—from brooding to smirking. The technical passages, of course, are more about being technical than expressing anything, so were filled with studious concentration. My companion, who graciously filled in at the last minute, thought he was a little too emotive. I found it endearing.

The concert opened with Mahler's once-lost Blumine, a relatively simple, short score which Michael Tilson Thomas brought to life with a natural, almost vocal sense of phrasing and dramatic dynamics. (Should I say Mr. Thomas or Mr. Tilson Thomas? Fine, MTT it is.) Still, he couldn't make it sound anything but pastorally alpine.

After the intermission, we heard Schoenberg's attempt to clarify Brahms' 1st Piano Quartet through the occult practice of orchestration. [Another thing that was novel to my companion: orchestration. It was also her first CSO concert: very excited.] Even after a 20th century full of experiments in orchestration, there were still novelties. Eb clarinet and bass clarinet playing unison octaves apart? Novel. 26 violins playing in unison? Possibly not novel but overbearing, often out of balance, clogging up the mental space necessary to pay much attention to the lower registers. At other times, it seemed bottom heavy, which sometimes worked, rich and soulful, and sometimes seemed muddy.

The Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme were brought to the fore but sometimes to the detriment of the whole.

In general, it seemed like Schoenberg couldn't decide whether he wanted to follow traditional 19th-century practice or if he wanted to fully embrace the 20th. Bigger and badder than the original, it was an interesting experiment, one that truly benefited from live performance.

Andrew Patner said "somewhat recommended", which translates roughly to a B-. Like all grades, though, that sounds inflated. I'd give it an uninflated B. It starts with an average piece with a great performance, then a meh piece (lookin' at you Beethoven) with a good performance, and finally a quizzical piece with an interesting performance. [I forget that Beethoven's rhythmic intrigue is a lot less...erm...intriguing when all of the accents are on the downbeat.]

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