Denk and Academy bring vitality and finesse to imaginative program at Arsht

Jeremy Denk, Academy of St Martin in the Fields
South Florida Classical Review

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields is one of the world’s finest chamber orchestras. Pianist Jeremy Denk is one of the most interpretively audacious and musically rigorous artists on the concert stage today. Put Denk and the London-based ensemble together and you have the formula for an outstanding concert.

That is exactly what happened Saturday night when Denk and the Academy played at the Arsht Center.

Although Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major is not played as often as his last eight concertos for the instrument, it is a delightful work that is rich in thematic invention and interplay of solo and orchestral forces.

Under the direction of concertmaster Tomo Keller (who led from his first chair position), the orchestra’s introductory tutti could have benefited from less heaviness but, with his first entrance, Denk set the performance back on track. His pianistic attack was vigorous without sounding overly percussive and the he brought a light touch to the shaping of melodic lines and filigree. The dialogues between piano and orchestra were given chamber-like integration. Denk’s reading of the first movement cadenza was marked by nuanced dynamics and nimble articulation. With Denk setting the pulse, the orchestral postlude in the first movement was twice as lively as the introduction.

Denk delved deep into the subtext beneath the grace notes of the Andante, achieving an almost Beethovenesque eloquence. He took the final Allegretto at a fast pace while maintaining precision and sensitivity of touch with rapid-fire exchanges between soloist and ensemble deftly achieved.

Responding to a standing ovation for his outstanding Mozart performance, Denk offered an encore of his hybrid honky-tonk piano version of the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. After initially playing the familiar melody in a straightforward manner, he morphed into a boogie-woogie jazz riff that really swung and may have been partly improvisatory. Denk’s modernist take on Wagner was a fine showcase for his versatility, and both he and most of the audience seemed to enjoy letting their hair down.

Denk returned following intermission for a rare performance of Benjamin Britten’s Young Apollo. Written in 1939, this short score was the first of Britten’s works to be premiered during his wartime North American sojourn. Scored for piano, string quartet and string orchestra, the score is cast in a neo-Baroque, concerto grosso mode.

With Keller leading the four string players in front of the piano, the terse opening figurations were sharp and emphatic. Denk’s bouncy keyboard role had finesse as well high energy and spot-on timing. The quartet and ensemble themes turned more lyrical before a wild dash to the conclusion. This brief (seven minute) score by the young Britten combines spicy harmonics with rigorous contrapuntal writing and proved an audience pleaser.
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