Denk excels on Clyne’s challenging ‘ATLAS’ in its East Coast premiere with New Jersey Symphony

jeremy denk review


Pianist Jeremy Denk performed with New Jersey Symphony at its May 16-19 concerts.

It is quite a coup to overshadow Beethoven’s iconic Third Symphony, but Anna Clyne’s vibrant and towering piano concerto ATLAS did just that in its East Coast premiere with New Jersey Symphony and guest artist Jeremy Denk on piano.

The “Beethoven’s Eroica” program, which also featured Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture led by guest conductor Markus Stenz, was presented May 16 at The Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown; May 17 at The Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University; and May 18-19 at Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark.

(A May 18 afternoon program hosted by Diego García, artistic director of the symphony’s youth orchestra, was a condensed, family-friendly version in the imprint of Leonard Bernstein’s beloved Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.)

Clyne, a versatile British composer who works in both acoustic and electro-acoustic music, was present at the May 19 NJPAC performance I attended. She introduced the work and thanked pianist Alex Peh, in attendance, for his friendship and piano coaching.

She also spoke about being inspired to write ATLAS by a four-volume retrospective book series of the same title that documented the creative process of contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter between 1962 and 2013. Musical portraits were based on more than 5000 photographs, drawings and sketches from the series that caught Clyne’s eye, “to create a musical montage and a lucid narrative,” as stated in the Composer’s Notes.

Clyne’s orchestral language is rooted in tradition but she retains her own individuality, creating new and fearless idioms from classical models. ATLAS is constructed on a large symphonic scale and includes an enormous percussion complement. Strings dip into a dynamic toolbox, including ferocious lashings of wood over string.

The architecture is innovative. Themes and variations develop, and the music follows with nomadic motifs. Enduring threads are woven from the simplest conventions: Traditional triplets set a theme and build into stunning chromaticism and unexpected atonalities. The work always keeps you guessing but it doesn’t push you off — it is emotional and heartfelt. Despite its many parts, it is logical and tells a story.


Jeremy Denk, with New Jersey Symphony.

Volume I was anxious with smokey, broody turbulence and thrill. After an introductory drum roll, Denk entered with a sharp attack, climbing the keyboard in speed runs and landing along the lower registers with hammering chords. Seated strings picked up whole notes where Denk left off, replicating a piano’s sustaining pedal.

While it is punishing for the pianist, it is not written in a flashy virtuosic or bravura style. It is clear-headed and vigorous, and well matched to the stylistically assured Denk, as free in his expressive language as Clyne. He never placed himself in front of the composition and needed no score. (He had played the work, co-commissioned by New Jersey Symphony, at its world premiere in March with Dallas Symphony Orchestra under music director Fabio Luisi.)

Volume II was cosmically minded, with a marvelous sense of space. Denk played mostly on the upper registers in delicate textures and shapes over a continuo of heavier strings.

Volume III was a charming and energetic scherzo of motley motifs. It opened with swingy rhythm and incorporated whimsical percussive bells and haunting chimes, plus a boozy waltz. The transitions and dialogues between Denk and the ensemble were magical.

Volume IV pulled from an avant-garde vocabulary, followed by recapitulations of themes from earlier movements: flashes of jazzy woodwinds and brass followed by the enchanting chimes. Piano solos were penetrating and fresh, and poetic when the movement demanded lyricism. It was an incredible journey.

Richard Wagner once said the secret to good conducting and correct execution of a work was to find the melody and make it shine. This seemed to be Stenz’s approach to Beethoven and Berlioz. While well intended, it was one-dimensional and did little to keep with the spirit of the music.

With the Eroica (“Heroic” in Italian), Beethoven broke away from the symphonic classicism of Haydn and Mozart and established the big, heroic music of the early 19th century, which launched him into a new chapter of stylistic development and set a new standard for the symphonic artform.

The groundbreaking symphony abounds in bold gestures and emotions that reflect his intense and passionate energy, sensitivity and humanity. It demands a poignant emotional scope and scale.

Stenz reveled in the drama of Beethoven’s musical temperament, but his use of dynamics seemed excessive. Movements were rhythmically wayward. Marcia funebre is a somber funeral procession, intense with grief and angst, but the adagio assai was taken at such a dragging pace, the movement ground to a halt with all of Beethoven’s pathos and grace buried below. Only Toscanini could get away with such a tempo, but Toscanini was gifted with a natural pulse.

In the Allegro molto finale, Beethoven calls upon the mythological figure Prometheus by borrowing a theme from his ballet score “The Creatures of Prometheus,” a fanfare to the heroic theme. A set of variations and a fugue closes with a spirited coda, but runaway accelerandos within the prestos flew past Beethoven’s architecture.

Musicians brought the technical mastery necessary for finessed solos, which included cellos in the long development of the Allegro con brio, and timpani with a melodic and sensitive military march section in the adagio, as well as oboe, bassoon and flute. Horns brought dignity and decorum to the famous hunting call of the Scherzo. (Until the Eroica, there had never been more than two horn players in a symphonic orchestra, but Beethoven’s work called for a third, and here we had four.)

Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival,” an Italianate concert overture with a single-movement form, is based on the opening of his first (and critically panned) opera, “Benvenuto Cellini.” The 19th century French composer is central to the Romantic repertoire but was often overlooked by Beethoven’s Austro-German successors Schumann, Schubert and Mendelssohn.

Here the vibrant Italian saltarello sparkled and showed off the natural fluency of the musicians and the deep poetry central to Berlioz’s work, particularly in the slower lyrical section with Andrew Adelson on English horn.

There was good, clean playing, though dynamics and contrasts were sometimes overarticulated into phrases that hindered the work’s natural flow.


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