So omnivorous is Jeremy Denk's musical appetite, that one can easily imagine how confined this searching American pianist must sometimes feel when forced to box his wide-ranging sympathies within the narrow bounds of a conventional piano recital.
Fortunately his colleague Emanuel Ax, as curator of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's "Keys to the City," was all too happy to indulge Denk's musical wanderlust as part of the piano festival now in progress. The result, heard Sunday at Orchestra Hall, was "The Collaborative Pianist," a program of piano chamber music in which Denk partnered with three close musical friends: violinist Stefan Jackiw, CSO cellist Katinka Kleijn and tenor Nicholas Phan.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the concert was how smoothly all the working parts came together. There was none of the grinding of interpretive gears that can occur when ad hoc ensembles present one-off concerts of this sort. Denk proved himself a superbly adaptable chamber musician, clearly enjoying his role as primus inter pares – a vital and engaged collaborator who struck sparks off his partners, and they off him.
I missed the Ligeti etudes he offered as part of the previous Sunday's Chicago Piano Day, but his new Nonesuch recording of these fascinatingly gnarly pieces (coupled with Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32) made me eager to hear what he and Jackiw would do with Stravinsky's "Duo Concertant."
Rather than attempt to reconcile the very different natures of the violin and piano, Stravinsky emphasizes their differences, in his own quirky, neo-classical manner. Both Jackiw and Denk understood this, like skilled orators arguing their disparate points of view from opposite corners before eventually meeting in the middle. The music's rhythmic dislocations, perpetual-motion bustle and Apollonian lyricism felt all of a piece.
Robert Schumann's song cycle, "Dichterliebe" ("Poet's Love"), settings of 16 poems by Heinrich Heine, was, of course, a specialty of the late, lamented German baritoneDietrich Fischer-Dieskau. But the songs can be just as effective when sung by a tenor, as they were on this occasion, with great depth of feeling, by the compelling Nicholas Phan.
Phan's instrument has sweetness and presence, and, accomplished lieder singer that he is, he varied its coloration to suit the interior life of Heine's words and Schumann's music. The American tenor is such a probing interpreter that the full range of emotions – from delight to surprise to disillusion to bitterness – was conveyed, turning each lied into a miniature drama. Far more than an accompanist, Denk was similarly alive to musical and poetic nuance; and no singer could have asked for a more sensitive or evocative handling of the piano postludes.
Following intermission came Dvorak's beautiful and too-seldom-heard Piano Trio in F minor, Opus 65.
The dark, turbulent passions that sweep through its four movements represent a tug-of-war between the composer's debt to his champion, Johannes Brahms, and his equally powerful debt to the spirit of Czech nationalism. The latter eventually wins out, but for most of the duration it's a draw.
Occasionally I wished Jackiw could have modulated his bright sound a bit more to match the burnished warmth of Kleijn's cello, but the close matching of phrases between the two string players and the pianist was so spontaneously achieved as to silence any objections. All three artists excelled at rhythmically alert give and take, making every moment register strongly while never losing sight of the big picture. Denk's clear, sunny keyboard textures could hardly have been better balanced against the larger ensemble.
A lengthy ovation greeted the performers at the end of the afternoon, but no encores were proffered. Jackiw will, however, return later in the week as one of the soloists in CSO subscription series performances of the Beethoven "Triple" Concerto, under Trevor Pinnock's direction.