Sunday, April 13, 2008

Kansas City Symphony: Jeremy Denk and Sibelius

The Kansas City Symphony and Music Director Michael Stern offered a slightly less ambitious program this weekend in contrast to last week's east meets west/journey to the stars program. Pianist Jeremy Denk joined the orchestra for the Mozart Rondo in D K 382 and Richard Strauss' rarely heard "Burleske" for Piano and Orchestra. Bartok's luscious Divertimento for Strings opened with the Sibelius Symphony # 1 comprising the last half.

The Bartok, like many of his compositions, is a reflection of his turbulent life and times. Written just before the beginning of WWII while in neutral and safe Switzerland. While not immune to what was transpiring around him, Bartok probably did not realize he would soon be forced to leave his beloved Hungary forever. The sunnier Hungarian influenced outer movements contrast with a dark and ominous central slow movement full of stark chordal processions and funeral atmosphere.

The Symphony strings relished this slow movement, bringing out the astringent harmonies and nervous energy always threatening to overwhelm the melodic line. The outer two movements however, were too light in texture, too soft-hued and slack for Bartok. I like my Bartok gritty and brimming with the paprika tinged, elastic Hungarian rhythms and I missed this to a degree. Some fine solo work from the violins and violas abounded in all three movements.

I was not familiar with Jeremy Denk and thus was pleased to hear him in concert. He is a pianist of exceptional technique and musicality, able to tackle the panoply of notes and rhythms of the Strauss yet also spin a delicate, almost romantic Mozart melody. However, he is one of those pianists with a touch of showmanship that can be distracting. He is better heard and not watched, his mannerisms, such as conducting the orchestra and "Schroderesque" facial expressions can get in the way of his musical communication.

The delicious Rondo in D K 382 was dispatched by all with grace and delicacy but with a touch more romanticism than is often the norm, which is all right by me. The Strauss was a grand, almost dramatic affair, with the witty burleske element always ready to burst out. This lively parody of serious piano concerti lay unappreciated for years and still shows up on concerts infrequently. For me, it was one of Strauss' gems I came to admire from the monumental Rudolf Kempe set of complete Strauss orchestral works in the 70's. Finally hearing it live in a wonderful performance was a treat.

The final work, Sibelius' rich and powerful first Symphony was given, what else can I say, a rich and powerful reading as befitting its stature. The brass, long a sore point with the orchestra, were spot on, blending well with the wind heavy writing and never overwhelming. When called upon, they emerged golden and commanding from the tapestry. Well chosen tempi, a driving, breathtaking scherzo, incredibly beautiful clarinet solos by Michael Wayne and a perfect realization of Sibelius' slowly emerging climaxes made this one of the best all around performances from this group yet.

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