Penetrating pianist a perfect match for Bach, Ligeti and Ives

Jeremy Denk
The Australian

By Graham Strahle

AUSTRALIAN audiences have never seen Jeremy Denk before, and one can only wonder why. Hailing from the US, he is a formidably strong pianist who knows his way inside a piece of music with a penetration of vision that is extremely rare these days. It makes droves of other fine concert pianists look either frustratingly uninvolved in what they are doing or just plain ignorant.

To hear Denk play alongside members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra was enough to conclude that here is a performer one has been hanging out to hear for years.

The program was a puzzling box of tricks, consisting of canons, exercises and riddles from Bach to Ligeti, but this only served to emphasise the point.

Bach's Canons on the Goldberg Ground, arranged by the ACO's director Richard Tognetti, laced their way through an extraordinarily eclectic oddments drawer of music that included Charles Ives's almost bar-less The Alcotts from his Concord Sonata, his polyrhythmic scherzo Holding your Own!, and four of Ligeti's etudes.

It could all have sounded intellectually dry and didactic. However, the complete opposite was the case as Denk unravelled the beautifully glistening spider's web of Etude No. 7 and hammered out the manic force of No 10. Up high in the piano's register he extracted a most distinctive, electronic-like sharpness of sound, exactly in keeping with Ligeti's futuristic sound-world. Two more etudes, Nos 11 and 13, and one could only thirst for more: breathtaking in his boldness, Denk really understands this music.

Tognetti's arrangements of the Bach canons, in which Denk was joined by Tognetti and Satu Vanska on violins, violist Christopher Moore and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, proved a worthy counterpart to the Ligeti. Stylistically free but sympathetically in keeping with Bach's contrapuntal methods, these sounded inventively fresh and invigorating.

Denk gave towering, magnified power to Ives's The Alcotts while the strings played Holding your Own! with biting astringency.

The concert's two longer works, Bach's Keyboard Concerto in F minor and Brahms's Piano Quintet, saw the same five performers in effervescent form and revelling in their combined musicianship.

The Bach flowed with infectious vivacity, great responsiveness within the ensemble, and cheeky humour in places.

They seemed to aim for rather too much flight in the Brahms. It lacked heart in places, but the famous scherzo was white hot in its savagely cut rhythms and excitement.