Britten Sinfonia and Jeremy Denk, Cambridge: 'exhilarating'

09.28.15
Jeremy Denk
The Telegraph

For its first collaboration with the adventurous American pianist Jeremy Denk, the Britten Sinfonia made Bach the starting point of a wide-ranging programme. “A colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass and will continue to pass”, was the 19th-century composer Gounod’s view of Bach, and few musicians since have begged to differ. This programme used Stravinsky as the fulcrum for an exploration of 20th-century refractions and arrangements.

Each half of the concert ended with one of Bach’s keyboard concertos, and in both Denk’s presence inspired the orchestra to its best playing of the evening. The outer movements of the Concerto No. 4 in A major, BWV 1055, rippled along with irrepressible energy, and Denk’s sometimes extrovert gestures never contradicted his musical humility. In the Second Concerto, BWV 1053 in E major, the central Siciliano sounded other-worldly; the dialogue between piano and strings in the finale had exhilarating buoyancy.

Elsewhere, there were moments when the Britten Sinfonia could have done with more drive and direction, but clever programming made up for it. In two Stravinsky arrangements of Bach Preludes and Fugues, the string sound in Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall had sonorous depth, and most of Stravinsky’s Bach-inspired Dumbarton Oaks bubbled along with neo-Baroque energy and wit, though the third movement sagged slightly. Yet its opening sparkled like a firework display over the estate in Washington DC from which the work takes its name.

But the biggest revelations came from Denk, in whose hands the piano always seems a musical time-machine, capable of transmitting any style and period. Stravinsky’s cubist Piano Rag Music was played with improvisatory ease yet total control, and he showed how Hindemith’s Ragtime (from his Suite “1922”) subverts a popular American form with Baroque dance. Denk also delivered the first of Conlon Nancarrow’s complex Canons for Ursula (written for the pianist Ursula Oppens rather than his usual medium of a machine) with jaw-dropping virtuosity, taking Bach’s contrapuntal inspiration to extremes. 

Read the rest of the review here