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Jeremy Denk, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra play Mozart with impish charm

Jeremy Denk
Washington Post

By Simon Chin

In Mozart’s day, virtuoso composers ruled the musical roost. Artistic creation went beyond mere composition to encompass the public display of new works in live performances. At the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concert Thursday night at Strathmore, pianist Jeremy Denk evoked the spontaneity and sense of discovery of those occasions with a scintillating account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C.

The concerto was the highlight of a genial survey of the great classical triumvirate — Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven — led by early music specialist Nicholas McGegan. The evening’s curtain-raiser, Haydn’s Symphony No. 30, reflected many virtues, and few of the vices, of McGegan’s period instrument background: transparent textures, rhythmic alertness and an astute balance between boisterous energy and courtly elegance.

Denk, meanwhile, reveled in disregarding purist notions of Mozart. With impish charm, he performed this grandest of Mozart concertos with light-hearted irreverence. Each note sounded fresh and alive, as if thought through anew, with Denk rarely missing the chance to tease out or embellish a phrase. His riveting first-movement cadenza, full of searching harmonies and mercurial shifts in mood, smiled affectionately back at Haydn while looking forward to the storminess of Beethoven.

Denk more than occasionally gilded the lily, yet his crystalline passagework and playful spontaneity proved a delight. Performing as if a new masterpiece were at hand, Denk channeled that most venerable of performance traditions: composer as rock star.

Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto received more conventional treatment from Fei Xie, the BSO’s principal bassoonist. Xie performed with suavity and uncommon precision, if not the utmost in personality. The concert concluded with a taut and not-so-slyly mischievous account of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. McGegan enforced rhythmic propulsion and earthy joviality, with brusque accents, pungent brass and striking dynamic contrasts reinforcing the work’s rough humor. In an evening not short on civilized amusement, it was the mighty Beethoven who enjoyed the hearty, last laugh.