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J.S. Bach in a Droll Mood

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
06/06/2023 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Keyboard Concertos in D Major, BWV 1054, in A Major, BWV 1055, in E Major, BWV 1053, in F Minor, BWV 1056, & in D Minor, BWV 1052
Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Jeremy Denk (Pianist and Conductor)

J.S. Bach/J. Denk

Bach judges the difficulties of his music according to his fingers. His compositions, therefore, are difficult to perform, as he demands that instrumentalists perform the same feats as he performs on the klavier. This, of course, is impossible.
Johann Schreiber (1727)

You just have to press the right keys and the right pedals at the right time and the music plays itself.
Johann Sebastian Bach

My visceral reluctance to spend an evening with all six Bach clavier concertos evaporated after the first three staccato notes from the D Major Concerto. This (I said to myself) won’t have the austerity of Rostropovich on the Cello Suites or the attention-getting Gould on the Goldberg. In fact, those first notes were preparation for what turned out to be a non‑stop joyous two hours.

Whether the bookend Allegros or the funky slow inner movements, Jeremy Denk was set out to make merry. Not Bach at the organ or Bach rehearsing yet another cantata. This was Johann Sebastian Bach leaving his noisy household, heading to the tavern for a glass or three of glühwein or lager, and enjoying music which–having been rewritten from previous works–was easy on the pen, even easier on the ear. Plagiarism has its merits.

In fact, from first to last, Jeremy Denk and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s ignored Bach’s frequent homages to his dour Lutheran God and got on with the show.

Not that this evening was without its faults. Choosing to be Baroque, Mr. Denk led the Bach‑sized orchestra with his head, turning from violins to cellos with distracting (if entertaining) persistence. One thing about Jeremy Denk, whether in his all‑encompassing choices or his easy style, he always takes challenges in his easy fashion.

That, though, led to some blurring of piano and orchestra in the first half. Mr. Denk rarely used his pedal (which the original spinet or virginal or piano lacked). Thus the gorgeous rolls up and down the keyboard became part of the orchestra. This was probably the effect in the 18th Century, but the piano’s voice had to stand out here.

Mr. Denk never tried to make his instrument sound anything but a closed grand piano. Methinks Bach would have approved. The harpsichord (according to one acquaintance) had no soul, and the piano was too coarse, so one imagines this music was played on the clavichord. And doubtless with the same virtuosity as Jeremy Denk.

And now we come to the performances themselves. With his back to the audience (like any conductor), his head dancing and (rarely) sweeping his hands over the orchestra, he seemed to improvise. And in the mordants and trills, possibly he did. On the other hand, the two cadenzas in the famous D Minor Concerto, he worked the keys as if he were playing a Prokofiev Toccata.

Actually, in these most playful works, the D Minor was an almost Romantic drama. Here, where Mr. Denk had a few piano‑less measures, he swept the Bach‑sized St. Luke’s Orchestra (22 players) to play with gorgeous sounds.

(This was the Concerto introduced by Felix Mendelssohn, when Bach was considered old‑fashioned. For years I have searched for the original recording of Mendelssohn’s playing–was he as quick as Denk, or was he melodious?)

(Alas, that recording is no longer available. Perhaps some day it will appear on YouTube.)

Most of the outer movements were taken at breakneck speed. Jeremy Denk can handle the fingerwork almost flawlessly, though much of the string/keyboard interplay was lost.

Thus the slow movements gave the individual character to the concerti. Mr. Denk took advantage of these sounds. His Adagio e piano sempre from the opening D Major was authentically mysterious. The following Andante from the G Minor Concerto had almost a Rococo elegance. The E Major Concerto substituted a Siciliano, where Mr. Denk allowed for a leisurely dance.

As for the Adagio of the F Minor Concerto, it was one of the most famous “Film‑Bachs”. It was the music for Slaughterhouse Five. Not that Jeremy Denk needed a cinematic urging. He played it plainly and the understated Bach emotions shone through.

By the end, one knew that Mr. Denk had transformed the whole picture of J.S.  Bach. The genius was apparent, the virtuosity of Bach the performer was, if anything enhanced. Yet this was the unknown Bach, of liveliness, litheness, and–dare I say it?–secular amiability.

As for the Scott Joplin encore, methinks that Bach, two‑and‑half centuries ago, would have noted the similarity to style and so rare spontaneity.

Harry Rolnick



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