Jeremy Denk brings a delighted surprise to Mozart concerto in Vienna Festival's finale

09.30.14
Jeremy Denk
The Ottawa Citizen

By Natasha Gauthier 

American pianist Jeremy Denk is as famous for writing about music as he is for playing it. Tuesday evening, the popular Think Denk blog author was in Ottawa to close the NAC Orchestra’s Vienna Festival with a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20.

The 44-year-old MacArthur Fellowship and Avery Fisher Prize winner brings the same quirky wit and keen insight that characterize his essays to the piano. But his intellect isn’t cold or confrontational; Denk’s playing is lovely as well as clever, with crisp articulation, imaginative voicing, and a tone that radiates silver from a warm golden centre.

His greatest charm is his ability to appear perpetually surprised and delighted by music he knows intimately. There’s a spontaneous, almost improvisational, quality to his playing, like an exceptionally accurate sight-reader discovering it for the first time.

He paints the concerto’s opening movement in mysterious, cloak-and-dagger tones — there is less drama here than some interpretations, but more real excitement. Denk plays his own cadenzas, this one a brilliant tour de force, both modern and faithful, with plenty of playful, inside piano jokes in the form of quotations from other works. The second movement was a miracle of tenderness and intimacy, illuminated by a filigree of inventive ornamentation. The uneasy, crossed-handed middle section was almost operatic in its declamatory contrast.

Zukerman was an attentive accomplice, weaving a discreetly shimmering backdrop to Denk’s astonishing flights of fancy.

Schubert’s two earliest symphonies filled the first half of the program. Composed when Schubert was still a teenager, both are indebted to his early role models, especially Beethoven. But while the works are immature, Schubert’s genius for melody, his harmonic audacity, and the peculiar melancholy that haunted his music all his life are already evident.

Zukerman’s approach to both was to underline the youthfulness of the works — almost to the point of glibness. There were moments of dreamy lyricism, but both symphonies wanted a more precise attack, firmer shape and confident direction. The graceful theme and variations that make up the second movement of the Symphony No. 2 are marked Andante, but Zukerman’s tempo was closer to a brisk jog than a walk. The intonation in the strings was occasionally uncertain and the brass section was messy, but the woodwinds produced an admirably cohesive, burnished sound.