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Dvorak’s Folk Music You Can Dance To

Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center enlisted the pianist Jeremy Denk to preside over two concerts this season, each built around works that draw on Eastern European folk songs and popular dance rhythms. The first, in October, inclined toward modernity, with works by Zemlinsky, Ligeti and Kurtag offsetting Dvorak’s Romanticism, with the mostly Romantic Dohnanyi as a bridge.

On the second program, at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday evening, Romanticism had the ensemble’s full attention, but if it was an evening of the tried and true — all Dvorak but for a couple of “Czech Dances” by Smetana — Mr. Denk’s interpretive acuity and the energy and polish of the society’s string players yielded considerable dividends.

Mr. Denk and Wu Han opened the program with three of Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dances,” in their original piano duet versions. If you are used to Dvorak’s later orchestrations, some of these have a quaint, salonlike quality. But they were hardly monochromatic in Mr. Denk’s and Ms. Wu’s hands, and the C major furiant (Op. 46, No. 1) that opens the collection, an eruption of energy in any scoring, benefitted from a supercharged reading.

The rest of the first half was devoted to Dvorak’s luxurious String Sextet in A (Op. 48), a work that earned its berth here by using dance rhythms — a dumka in the second movement and a furiant in the third — as structural elements. That said, the dance rhythms are secondary to the score’s sheer, seductive opulence, a quality that the players — Ani Kavafian, Kristin Lee and Joseph Silverstein, violinists; Mark Holloway and Paul Neubauer, violists; and Fred Sherry and Andreas Brantelid, cellists — exploited as an end in itself and as a means of magnifying the work’s emotional core.

Smetana’s “Czech Dances” are not quite as dazzling as Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dances,” written about the same time, but Mr. Denk played two of them — a polka from Book I and a furiant from Book II — with a fluid rubato that gave his readings an individual, characterful touch.

He used that same technique to wonderful effect in Dvorak’s Quintet in A (Op. 81). In the fast movements Mr. Denk lingered over the score’s solo turns, shaping them as thoughtful interludes between full-throttle ensemble passages. His rendering of the bittersweet theme in the slow movement (another dumka) had an almost vocal inflection, and throughout the work Ms. Kavafian and Mr. Brantelid matched Mr. Denk’s flexibility, often giving their solo moments a lugubrious character that contrasted affectingly with the electricity of the hard-driven full ensemble playing.