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Marek Janowski leads thrilling performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto

Jeremy Denk, Chee-Yun , Alisa Weilerstein
Mercury News

By Richard Scheinin

SAN FRANCISCO -- Beethoven's Triple Concerto gets knocked for not being enough of a virtuoso flag waver. Or sometimes it's overlooked, standing as it does amid the basic fabulousness of other works composed by the master around the same time: the "Eroica" Symphony, the "Appassionata" piano sonata, the "Razumovsky" string quartets.

But sometimes we hear a performance of the Triple Concerto in C Major for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op. 56, and go whoa, this is sort of amazing. Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall there was just such a performance, with Marek Janowkski conducting the San Francisco Symphony and three soloists who complemented and conjoined one another like classical elements.

Lots of earth, water, air and fire in this one, with the orchestra building a spacious and suspenseful launching pad for cellist Alisa Weilerstein's entrance, which seemed to breathe its notes to life. Violinist Chee-Yun, clear and sinewy, bound and braided with the cellist's lines. Pianist Jeremy Denk launched his initial volleys, exuberant and pearly-toned, landing in unison with the horns. And off it went.

Warsaw-born and musically educated in Germany, Janowski -- who repeats this program through Saturday -- is in love with inner voices and the subtleties of timbre and proportion. In the opening movement, there were passages where even a player as extravagantly expressive as Weilerstein were swallowed up. But Janowski soon corrected this. Across its three movements, the concerto was continually clarifying, achieving balance, with the orchestra as celebrant, letting the three soloists interweave with umbilical closeness.

Some might say Weilerstein's brimming, note-bending and reverently song-filled approach verges on too much; I wouldn't. Her dynamic range was stunning, from wrenching fortes down to disappearing pianissimos. Still in her late 20s, she has emerged as one of the most potently expressive players on the international circuit.

Denk is a technical wonder, with a jazz musician's in-the-moment poetry and responsiveness. He maximized many of the score's small gestures, accelerating a left-handed ascent for a second or two, then pulling back, giving it added spring, or ending a phrase with a barber's clip, giving it fresh definition. And enthused he was, knees bouncing, whipping from one page of the score to the next.

Balancing these two was Chee-Yun, pure-toned and swiftly sure-footed -- and what a great listener. She was the glue in the most translucent Largo passages, as well as in the muscular, wind-driven Gypsy tune of the finale.

It was a thrilling performance by all the musicians. Amid the applause, Denk was singing to himself as he left the stage.

This was Janowski's second all-Beethoven program with the orchestra since the New Year.

It began with Symphony No. 1 in C Major, given a quietly startling performance from its opening measures, which are slow and quizzical and still surprising to hear.

Measuring and fortifying effects -- with just the right dosage of trumpets in the Allegro, or of flute-song in the second movement -- Janowski fashioned a sound that was unusually rich, balanced and complete, while maintaining a necessary formality. It was as if he were sculpting a fine classical bust -- with brilliant decorations, as in the crisply etched, slashing rhythms of the scherzo.

Closing the concert less successfully was Symphony No. 2 in D Major, its first half characterized here by a generic Beethovenian gravitas. Even so, the final two movements emerged with super-clarity. With winds just barely poking through the strings in the finale, like children pulling faces, one could hear Herr Ludwig laughing.