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Music Review: Pianist Jeremy Denk and the Nashville Symphony perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1

denkEvery season, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra brings some of the world’s most important guest artists to Music City. Jeremy Denk, the soloist in this weekend’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, is as distinguished as they come.

A gifted writer as well as pianist, Denk recently received a contract from Random House to turn an article he wrote for The New Yorker into a full-fledged memoir. During the past year, he also received the $75,000 Avery Fisher Prize, was named Musical America’s “instrumentalist of the year” and was made a MacArthur Fellow (often referred to as the “Genius Grant”).

Denk has a penchant for adventurous repertoire – Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata and the Ligeti etudes are among his specialties – and his interpretations are notable for their searching, thought-provoking qualities. On Friday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Denk revealed another facet of his musical personality – he’s also daredevil pianist with a formidable technique.

He gave a fiery account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, performing the work’s fast outer movements at brisk tempos. He was utterly fearless in the face of fiendishly difficult double notes – he performed the first movement’s all-but-impossible-to-play octave glissando with panache. Likewise, he tossed off the torrent of notes in the first movement cadenza with sparkling virtuosity.

Denk, of course, is no mere musical acrobat, so it was no surprise that his playing was also full of lyrical warmth and rhythmic flexibility. The chemistry Denk established with NSO music director Giancarlo Guerrero was truly marvelous, with both artists approaching Beethoven’s early concerto as more of a dramatic, romantic work than an elegant classical one.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is hard to top. For an encore, therefore, Denk turned to Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations – a work he has brilliantly recorded – giving a gentle and appealing account of Variation No. 13.

Friday’s concert opened with a colorful reading of Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture, a work that Berlioz wrote as a stand-alone piece and not an opera prelude, the title notwithstanding. For the most part, Guerrero conducted this work using small, precise gestures. His cues nevertheless elicited a huge sound.

Guerrero concluded the evening with Strauss’ sprawling, 50-minute-long Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). This massive tone poem unfolds as one continuous movement that nevertheless contains six distinct sections. These sections boast such titles as “The Hero at Battle,” “The Hero’s Works of Peace” and “The Hero’s Retreat from the World and Fulfillment” that were projected onto a screen above the stage.

Ein Heldenleben can seem like a disguised violin concerto, given the prominence of the solo violin part, and concertmaster Jun Iwasaki played this part with considerable finesse. Guerrero, for his part, gave the music a colossal interpretation, leading the NSO in a performance notable for its rich expressiveness and gloriously transparent textures.

Guerrero and the NSO are at their best in these late-Romantic blockbusters, so classical fans should make every effort to catch Saturday night’s repeat performance.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Symphony Orchestra performs the music of Berlioz, Beethoven and Strauss. The performance is 8 p.m. Saturday, April 19 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $23 to $143 and are available here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.