Denk and the Symphony make it all look easy

Jeremy Denk
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

Denk’s appearance was only the latest in a string of forthright but interpretively cunning performances he’s given in recent years. In this case, he transformed Bartok’s whirling, ferocious bundle of energy into a smoothly purring machine.

That’s not the only possible way to treat this concerto — when Yuja Wang tackled the piece with the Symphony in 2011, for example, she made it a vehicle for her brand of whizbang extroversion. Denk, by contrast, made the solo part seem like something he could do while also checking his email. If that makes the performance sound half-baked or inattentive, the effect was anything but. On the contrary, the soloist’s elaborate sangfroid — his attitude of “Chill out, I got this” — made the music sound that much more exciting.

It meant that the volleys of glissandos and the silky spinning textures of the first movement landed with a winning combination of propulsion and cool. It meant that the weightiest and most clangorous sections of both outer movements earned their sense of impact.

And best of all, it made the structural contrasts of the three-part central movement — two matching expanses of eerie, slow-moving music with muted strings framing an ultrafast explosion of angular writing — even more crisply drawn than they would otherwise have been.

As a crowning contrast, Denk returned to the stage with an encore, the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C, K. 545. This sonata, written for beginners, exemplifies the virtues of simplicity and grace; Denk’s performance, resounding in the big space of Davies, created a brief moment of almost sacred hush.

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