When SPCO, pianist Denk and Bach meet, inspiration is the result

Jeremy Denk
Twin Cities Pioneer Press

Pianist Jeremy Denk seems to have a deep understanding of how to find both the head and the heart in Bach. I heard it when he played the daunting "Goldberg Variations" at a Chopin Society recital in St. Paul five years ago, and it's been the case every time he's tackled a Bach Keyboard Concerto with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Now that he's an SPCO artistic partner, he's helping shape programs that deepen your understanding and appreciation of Bach with complementary works. But the crux of these concerts is always what happens when Denk meet Bach.
And that encounter was inspiring on Friday morning at the Ordway Concert Hall. Denk performed two Bach concertos for piano and strings (Nos. 4 and 2) and each proved an ideal showcase for this pianist's interpretive imagination and depth. Throw in four solo piano works that found the Bach in ragtime and you have a rewarding exploration of how the composer's influence pops up in unexpected places.
The original plan was for Denk to perform three Stravinsky piano pieces (two rags and a tango), but the pianist decided to go down the rag route even further, offering one by Paul Hindemith, a deconstructionist take on the form by Conlon Nancarrow and William Bolcom's lovely "Graceful Ghost Rag," which was given the gentlest interpretation I've encountered.
But the best reason to catch these concerts is to hear what Denk does with the Bach concertos. He gave the Concerto No. 4 a pleasantly paradoxical combination of lightness and gravitas, using his very engaging body language to convey the places where battles raged between heart and brain (with left and right brain going at it, as well). The Second Concerto probably began its life as an oboe concerto, and Denk made the lines sing out sonorously, infusing the fast movements on either end with ebullience and evoking unease in the central Siciliano. And the SPCO strings matched him in both passion and precision. Read the rest of the review here