Cleveland Orchestra shines with guests performing Stravinksy and Bartok

Jeremy Denk
The Plain Dealer

The only things brighter at Severance Hall this week than the music are the guest artists.

On the podium here for the first time Thursday, conductor Susanna Malkki made the Cleveland Orchestra sound like a shinier, more transparent version of it usual self. Pianist Jeremy Denk, then, also in his debut, offered Bartok of the most luminous, pristine sort.

Together, so shimmering, so brilliant were their performances, one almost had to wear shades. Then again, this listener wouldn't have wanted to miss or darken even a single note.

It helps that they had good source material. Stocked entirely with vivid, colorfully orchestrated scores from composers in lighter moods, the program would have stood out and hung together especially well even if the performances had not. If only every program contained such variety and vibrancy while also making such sense.

Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3 hasn't been absent from Cleveland long. Still, for all its rare virtues, Denk's performance of the work Thursday might as well have been its premiere. Likewise special was the velvety reading of a Bach "Goldberg" Variation he presented as an encore.

An artist renowned for his depth and virtuosity, Denk brought his full talents to bear on Bartok's last mostly complete work. Counterpoint sizzled, changes of mood came abruptly and enigmatically, and the slow movement, in his hands, was solemn and radiant by turns.

Yet not once did the pianist employ a heavy or percussive hand. On the contrary, his performance overall was notable for its sparkle and lightness. That this was late Bartok, not a work from his fiery middle years, Denk wisely never let his listeners forget.

Read the rest of the review here