One Night, Two Shows, Four Masters

Jeremy Denk
New York Times

By Steve Smith

Despite the thorough dissimilarity between the two concerts that the Mostly Mozart Festival presented on Thursday night, you could tease out common threads if you tried hard. Both the performance by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall and the after-hours recital by the pianist Jeremy Denk at the Kaplan Penthouse hung on a central duality. The Freiburg ensemble offered works by Haydn and Mozart for side-by-side comparison; Mr. Denk performed what appeared to be disparate works by Liszt and Beethoven, proving in the process that the pairing was far from incompatible.

The first half of the program offered by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, a trim, distinguished German period-instrument ensemble, featured works more of peppy utility than of striking originality and inspiration. Mozart’s Symphony No. 16 in C (K. 128) came during his 16th year, a time of feverish compositional activity. Slight and precocious, the symphony was notable mainly for its passing instances of subtly contrasted dynamics, keenly represented here with precise, lively playing.

Haydn wrote his Concerto for Fortepiano and Violin in F (Hob.XVIII:6) as a 24-year-old freelance composer tasked with the unhappy duty of writing music to celebrate a would-be lover’s taking the veil. The soloists, the violinist Kathrin Tröger and the fortepianist Christine Schornsheim (playing on an unidentified period-model instrument), performed with elegant efficiency in the perky outer movements, and brought out a plaintive melancholy in the flowing lines of the Largo.

In the works of the second half, Mozart and Haydn emerged more recognizably as the masters we know. Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in B flat (K. 191), composed just two years after the Symphony No. 16, revealed in nascent form the Italian opera-inspired dramaturgy of his mature concertos. Javier Zafra was a vibrant soloist, performing on a period bassoon woodier and mellower in tone than its modern descendant.

With Haydn’s Symphony No. 52 in C minor (Hob.I:52), composed in the same year as the Mozart symphony heard earlier, came an altogether higher level of complexity and accomplishment. A late example of Haydn’s so-called Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) symphonies, the work included its share of appropriately tempestuous themes. As often, though, the music was frolicsome or tender.

Again and again the ear captured crafty details that underscored Haydn’s originality: deceptive harmonic progressions, off-kilter rhythms, a luminous passage during the Andante in which a pedal tone on French horns purred under silken strings. One or two wayward squawks from the excellent horn players aside, the Freiburg musicians offered consistently secure, uplifting work.

Later, in the Kaplan Penthouse, Mr. Denk prefaced his recital by claiming that he was assigned to write program notes but missed the deadline. Given the grueling schedule he maintains, you could hardly blame him. A charming and insightful writer, as his well-known blog demonstrates, he described to the audience the affinities he perceived between Liszt’s flamboyant “Après une Lecture du Dante” and Beethoven’s enigmatic Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor (Op. 111).

Both have a “dark night of the soul” quality, as Mr. Denk described it, and evoke a sense of heaven and hell contemplated. Given Liszt’s source and subject, the evocation was explicit. “Liszt was never shy about being overt,” Mr. Denk said.

His playing supported that view, showing an explosive ferocity and a fragile delicacy that were thrilling to witness in so intimate a setting. Here and there Mr. Denk’s animation fleetingly outpaced his rock-solid technique, a small price to pay for such intensity and commitment.

Mr. Denk’s playing in the first movement of the Beethoven sonata progressed from crabby and benumbed to demonic and compulsive. More than once I saw an audience member involuntarily flinch at some of the sharper attacks.

In describing the piece beforehand, Mr. Denk explained how, in the second movement, Beethoven wrings increasingly elaborate variations from a three-note theme: the kind of musical germ that the composer somehow manages to pack with an emotional wallop seemingly beyond its capacity. In Mr. Denk’s hands the music progressed through lissome swing, pious exuberance and chaste interiority, climaxing in a valedictory swell that seemed to anticipate every Wagner triumphal chorus yet to come. At the end, Beethoven once again reveals the three-note theme, then folds his hands in prayerful repose.

This account, alive to every suggestion and nuance in the score, was an absolute joy to witness. Mr. Denk, clearly, is a pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs, in whatever combination — both for his penetrating intellectual engagement with the music and for the generosity of his playing.