Jeremy Denk, piano: VSO/ David Danzmayr: Music of Shostakovich and Mozart. Orpheum, March 4, 2017.

This concert featured up-and-coming young Austrian conductor David Danzmayr, who aimed to breathe some life into the more fallow reaches of Shostakovich’s output: his Symphony No. 12 ‘The Year 1917’ and Festive Overture.  His sidekick was the irrepressible Jeremy Denk who brought his own revolutionary fervour to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19. Danzmayr currently conducts the Zagreb Philharmonic and was Principal Conductor of the Illinois Symphony previously. On this showing, he is a conductor to reckon with, able to bring a strong galvanizing response from the orchestra while exhibiting both musical intelligence and lyrical sensitivity.  I preferred his committed efforts with Shostakovich to Jeremy Denk’s controversial and relatively wayward Mozart.

One typically learned Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony (1961) from the premiere recording by Yevgeny Mravinsky; there were few others available. Initially, it might have been hoped that the symphony would further one’s understanding of late Shostakovich, but the work proved a tough nut to crack: heavy on pageantry and Russian fervour, and seeking relatively little motivic depth and inward resonance. Personally, I found it was one symphony that did not gain stature with repeated hearings: after the magnificent Tenth Symphony, it seemed to catch the composer in the slighter task of appeasing Soviet authorities, and not much more.  Both the Eleventh and Twelfth Symphonies (and much earlier, the Second) present types of ‘cinematic’ Shostakovich, driven by vivid orchestral effects and a visceral engagement that may or may not last in the memory.

Danzmayr showed his strong commitment to the composer and the ability to conduct with great control and fire in the opening Festive Overture (1954): he achieved real flexibility and gusto, giving the piece unusual purpose. The maestro immediately got the orchestra to operate at the higher reaches of their capacity, securing strong unanimity and a lovely burnished weight in the string tone. 

The same features carried forward to the symphony.  The headlong turmoil of the opening movement (‘Revolutionary Petrograd’) emerged with scintillating immediacy, the brass and percussion fully up to their demands, and the burning rhythms tightly focused.  While this movement can carry itself, the problem is finding the more contemplative underside to this work. With the four movements continuously played, unifying motives and feelings need to surface, and Danzmayr was impressive in identifying them. He brought out, first, the unity in of the quiet brooding in the cellos and double-basses that starts the work and returns in the middle movements and, second, a bonding role for the haunting brass (trumpet) chorale that appears later on. Roughly the same feelings were set in place each time these passages occurred, establishing a useful connection.  The last movement can often be sheer bombast, but the conductor did an admirable job of linking it to richer references too: its many powerful sforzandi to the spirit of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and the closing celebratory parade to a quasi-Mahlerian march. Danzmayr’s line and control in building this cinematic ending was fully noteworthy: if only someone would find enough satiric irony to make the closing march seem hollow!  I thought this was a very strong interpretive effort, and the orchestra can only be praised for bringing it off so convincingly.

Mozart’s F major Piano Concerto is typically regarded as a gentle, glowing composition, moving forth with such lovely radiance that one almost forgets the travails of everyday life.  Perhaps this is too romantic a view: Jeremy Denk apparently thinks so, attacking the work with his own revolutionary fervour, consistently bring out its more angular qualities and imparting a virtuoso flourish to much of it. 

The basic problem was that Denk’s interpretation didn’t really settle into anything, jumping from a Baroque fleetness of fingering, to over-adorned cantabile phrases, to gleaming virtuoso runs and rhythmic displays – in a seemingly endless cascade.  I am always open to new approaches to this composer but I am not sure whether it is a compliment or not to suggest that this Mozart playing vaguely reminded me of Glenn Gould’s years ago.  Virtually every type of articulation is tried yet somehow the composer’s hallmark – the simple, unaffected beauty of the motives and their plasticity of line – remains elusive. 

Danzmayr greatly reduced the size of the orchestra, cultivating finely-drawn lines and a hint of period dynamics, and my first inclination was to think this was a performance leaning towards the authentic tradition.  Denk entered by storm, with the quickness of articulation that one might identify with a fortepiano (or harpsichord). I was reminded of the way the pianist plays Bach, which in turn reminded me of the energy and flair that Igor Kipnis brought to Bach. There were many attempts to unearth witty twists and turns as the opening movement proceeded, and some rough-and tumble dramatic moments too, but I don’t think Denk really kept to an authentic template, save some intermittent interest in counterpoint.  Its lyrical dimension was remote.  Maybe this rendering was just too intellectual and high-strung for my taste, but I could not tie it to any concept of Mozart style; it was just too skittish.  The pianism as such was enviably dexterous but seemed on the showy side. The Allegretto is the place to look for deeper lyrical involvement, yet Denk failed to float phrases with much ease. Everything seemed self-conscious and laboured, with an air of preciousness. The finale was back to witty twist and turns, some parts almost thrown off with a ‘cartoon music’ frenzy, but this seemed to be more of an experiment than anything else.  I have always had the highest regard for the pianist’s talent and ingenuity, but I struck out on this one. The performance seemed to be more about the artist than the composer and, while it attempted to expose wit, it had absolutely no charm.


© Geoffrey Newman 2017