Denk And Bartók: Nothing But Love Since Student Days

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Jeremy Denk is in the midst of a cavalcade of performances of Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3.  (Photo by Michael Wilson)
Jeremy Denk is in the midst of a cavalcade of performances of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 around the country.
(Photo by Michael Wilson)
By John Fleming

TAMPA — Jeremy Denk has been on a Bartók quest this season. Since November, he has been the soloist in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with half a dozen orchestras around the United States, and he has a couple more to go in Cleveland and Birmingham. On April 17, he gave a scintillating account of the work with the Florida Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen guest conducting, the first of three performances that weekend at three different halls in the Tampa Bay area.

 Mei-Ann Chen led the Florida performances. (Rosalie O’Connor)
Mei-Ann Chen led the Florida performances. (Rosalie O’Connor)

Denk has an impeccable Bartók pedigree via one of his most important influences, the Hungarian pianist György Sebök, with whom he studied at the Indiana University School of Music. “He was the spigot from which I drank Hungarian things,” Denk said in a phone interview several days before his Florida engagement. “One of the first things I played for him was the Bartók Piano Sonata. It changed my whole concept of what Bartók was about. Whether he was primarily percussive or whether there was a certain kind of way of bringing out the subtle harmonic lyricism in Bartók. Ever since then I’ve been a big Bartók person.”

Sebök, who died in 1999, is wittily, movingly portrayed in Denk’s essay on a life in piano lessons, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” published in The New Yorker in 2013. Now the pianist is writing a memoir for Random House, and working on the book, along with a busy concert schedule and revising his libretto for The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts), has kept him from posting on his must-read blog of wry commentary on classical music, Think Denk. “I have a lot of projects going on,” he said. “The blog has suffered.”

In February, Denk played the Bartók Third Concerto with the Asheville Symphony in North Carolina, and he had a memorable experience there. During the winter of 1943-44, Bartók, exiled from Hungary and on a retreat for his health, spent five months in Asheville, where he notated bird songs that ended up in the second movement of the concerto. “I visited the place where Bartók wrote it, an inn up in the hills outside Asheville,” the pianist said. “The presence of nature is obvious in the piece, the pastoral sense of it, so it didn’t tell me anything that I couldn’t already infer, but it was nice to be there, to be in the very spot that Bartók was.”

The second movement, marked Adagio religioso, is the heart of the concerto.  In the Florida performance, Denk was masterful in this quiet meditation on a Bach chorale, though it was not without touches of Bartókian spikiness. The pianist brought a delightful deftness to passages reminiscent of Bach’s keyboard partitas or the Goldberg Variations. And sure enough, the bird songs from Asheville emerged in the winds from the “night music” that opens the movement. At times, Denk’s playing had a deeply emotional quality, effectively meshing with astringent harmonies in the orchestra.

Bela Bartok composed his Third Piano Concerto in 1945.
Béla Bartók composed his Third Piano Concerto in 1945.

The concert took place at Ferguson Hall, a somewhat cramped venue in Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts that is less than ideal acoustically, but the Florida Orchestra is at least accustomed to the drawbacks of the space and knows how to make the best of it. Subsequent performances were in St. Petersburg and Clearwater. The orchestra has excellent Bartók credentials, because the composer’s son, Peter, lives in the Tampa Bay area, where he has a publishing company that prepares revised, definitive scores of his father’s works. The orchestra has played them, and Peter normally attends programs that include his father’s music.  Unfortunately, because of ill health, he was unable to hear Denk in the Third Concerto. (Denk played the Boosey & Hawkes edition from memory.)

A Bartók score can be fraught with pitfalls, but Chen, performing with Denk for the first time, was an alert, sensitive mediator between soloist and orchestra. This was evident in the first movement, which contained some droll little exchanges between piano and clarinet and flute that drew a puckish look from the soloist. Denk had plenty of power for the sequence of emphatic chords that drove the music, setting up a dramatic contrast with the hushed middle movement. The finale was like a crazy Hungarian dance, taken at a pell-mell pace. From the ferocious salvo of notes with which he launched the movement, Denk’s nervy intensity generated a propulsive performance that kept me on the edge of my seat right into the thunderous climax. Fittingly, as an encore, he paid homage to (as he put it in our interview) the “Bartokized Bach” of the second movement, and spun out Variation No. 13 from the Goldberg Variations.

Denk plays Bartok 3 this week with the Cleveland Orchestra. (Wilson)
Denk will also play Bartók 3 in Cleveland, Birmingham. (Wilson)

Denk performs the Third Concerto April 23 and 25 with the Cleveland Orchestra under Susanna Malkki. It will be a reunion of sorts, as he and the Finnish conductor played the work with the San Francisco Symphony in November. The pianist has another Bartók Third on the agenda May 8-9 with the Alabama Symphony, with Andreas Delfs on the podium.

Chen opened the Florida Orchestra concert with Jennifer Higdon’s widely performed blue cathedral. It’s an ethereal, neo-romantic work, deploying Chinese meditation balls, the hum of tuned water goblets, and tinkly percussion to evoke the image of a glass cathedral in the sky, but it’s also a lament for the death, in 1998, of the composer’s younger brother, Andrew Blue Higdon. A dialogue of clarinet and flute – the instruments played by Andrew and Jennifer Higdon, respectively – is interwoven through the work, and it was beautifully carried out by principal clarinet Brian Moorhead and principal flute Clay Ellerbroek. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade took up the second half of the program, with concertmaster Jeffrey Multer as the resourceful storyteller.

John Fleming, the former performing arts critic of the Tampa Bay Times, has written for Opera News, Musical America and other publications.