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Prom Chamber Music 6: Jeremy Denk/Prom 53: Fray, Philharmonia, Salonen

Jeremy Denk
The Arts Desk

There were two reasons why I didn’t return to the Albert Hall late on Friday night to hear Andras Schiff play Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The first was that one epic, Mahler’s Sixth in the stunning performance by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, needed properly digesting. The other was that at Easter I’d heard Jeremy Denk play the Goldbergs in Weimar, and I wanted that approach to resonate, too – dynamic, continuous, revelatory, in a very different way from how I know Schiff approaches Bach.
Denk’s recitals are mandatory listening now, and the lunchtime recital yesterday at the Cadogan Hall was no exception. It was far from light but perfectly digestible, since his approach to the two potential heavyweights leading up to the magnum opus of Beethoven’s last sonata made easy and even exultant work of violent discords. Scriabin’s Ninth, “Black Mass” Sonata, didn’t seem Satanic or scary at all with this kind of intellectual torch shone on it; with very little sustaining pedal, its harmonic experimentations seemed not whimsical or self-indulgent but clean and natural – an astonishingly effective prelude, in fact.
Michael Tilson Thomas, with whom Denk appears in Henry Cowell’s Piano Concerto in Sunday evening’s Prom, once talked about the “exultation of the dissonance” in hard-hitting scores of the 1920s, and exultant was exactly how the opening movement of Bartók’s Piano Sonata came across, dancing in what Denk with typical wit described as “that Hungarian groove”. Different colours lit various chords or notes in the slow movement, and the tumultuous repeated-note finale may have done for the middle C on the Cadogan Steinway, though it only began to sound unhealthy in Beethoven’s Op. 111.
Unfortunate, that, since C – first minor, then major – is the home key of this poleaxing masterpiece. Talking to Petroc Trelawny before it, Denk gave insights of incredible concision, especially when it came to the nature of the Arietta’s gobsmacking variations. All was clarity again, with space for special articulation, and nothing neutral, even if I’ve heard pianists make more of the lower register and the spirituality of the later stages. A sequence of trills apart, Denk’s Beethoven remained resolutely of this world. As, inevitably, his perfect choice of the only possible thing to follow that – the central movement of Mozart’s last sonata, with its far more cheek-by-jowl light and shade – did not.
Salonen had already tested the two other works on the programme in previous Philharmonia seasons. There’s no doubt no end of polishing and fine-tuning that can be done to Bartók’s pantomime-ballet score The Miraculous Mandarin, especially in the protracted endgame in which the mysterious protagonist refuses to die at the hands of a prostitute and her thugs. By choosing to open with the complete ballet rather than the suite, which ends with the stomp before the murder, and doing without the helpful action supertitles which had guided the audience at the Festival Hall, Salonen set himself, his orchestra and the briefly engaged wordless chorus a challenge which they faced with extremes of sonorities; never has the score sounded more contemporary, yet at the same time so romantically tender. Awed salutes to clarinettist Mark van de Wiel, who played the girl’s three "decoy games" so very humanly, and to a guest principal timpanist of amazing presence and strength, Paul Philbert.