Symphony gives Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ a fresh spin

Jeremy Denk
The San Diego Union-Tribune

To make the old and familiar sound fresh and new again — this is what great musicians strive for in playing the classics.

On Saturday evening at Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, pianist Jeremy Denk, conductor Cristian Macelaru, and the San Diego Symphony did just that. They scraped away the heroic bombast and syrupy sentimentality that all too frequently begrime Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto.

They revealed a noble edifice, compelling in musical argument, yet full of surprises that still had power to delight or impress. Echoing the title of the Symphony’s monthlong investigation of piano concertos, this “Emperor” concerto was truly “Upright & Grand.”

In their performative restoration, Denk and Macelaru kept rubato to a minimum, yet the crisp rhythmic drive of the outer movements never felt mechanical. Climaxes and other significant arrival points were meticulously calculated, channeling the inexorable sweep of Beethoven’s momentum into a delineation of his majestic musical architecture.

Some pianists rely on the resonance of the piano’s pedal to create great volume, but not Denk. His pedaling was remarkably clean. It was a marvel to see his hands suspended 8 inches above the keys, descending with little warning, producing a loud, full, yet musical sonority. Denk’s clean, powerful tone helped avoid the sonic bluster that so many pianists succumb to in this concerto.