Brahms Piano Quintet review: Denk finds fertile ground in blend of old and new

Jeremy Denk
Sydney Morning Herald

By David Vance

Brahms Piano Quintet – ACO
City Recital Hall, August 17

It was a meeting of kindred musical spirits when American pianist Jeremy Denk joined Richard Tognetti and the ACO principals (Satu Vänskä, violin, Christopher Moore, viola, and Timo-Veikko Valve, cello) for a program that was totally rewarding from the first delicately played notes of Bach's Goldberg Canons to the resounding final chords of Brahms' Piano Quintet.

The familiar Tognetti approach of juxtaposing the old and the new in such a way that each informs the other created a program for which its spiritual mentor might have been Charles Ives, who saw perfectly fit to combine the past with the present, the consonant with the dissonant, and the highbrow with the lowbrow.

Ives' brief Scherzo for string quartet, Holding Your Own!, was played with exhilarating tautness, while the third movement of the Concord Sonata offered an evocation of a session around the Alcott family piano: here the opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth mingles pensively with fragments of Wagner, ragtime and folk songs, woven into a stream-of-consciousness narrative of domestic contentment. Denk's performance was poetic, intimate and totally persuasive.

Purists beware: in Tognetti's arrangement for piano and string quartet of Bach's 14 canons on the ground bass of the Goldberg Variations, there is no attempt to be authentic, but rather the desire to make this simple eight-note theme yield as much musical variety and interest as possible. By turns reflective and joyous, the music remained alive and as eloquent as any historically informed reading.

It was an inspired decision, worthy of Ives, to interleave between these canons four of Ligeti's virtuosic piano Etudes, where Denk's flawless technique served the imaginative range of these mercurial and fiendishly difficult studies with brilliance.

Denk's superlative pianism was revealed again in Bach's F minor keyboard concerto and the massive Brahms Piano Quintet. His subtly nuanced and ever-thoughtful phrasing, along with his infinite control of tonal and dynamic shading, allow him to create music that seems to spring from spontaneous invention, fresh with every note.

Lovers of fine music making should not miss the concert when it returns on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday next week.