"Comfortable" is not the word that normally would come to mind when writing about a performance of Bartok's dynamic Piano Concerto No. 3 in E major. Verbs like "tackle" pop into one's head first, as in "Jeremy Denk tackled Bartok at the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's Masterworks concert Thursday evening," or maybe "confront" or perhaps "startle."
To be sure, Denk confronted and tackled the concerto, and startled his audience with his style and technique, calling to mind a tasty goulash sprinkled generously with paprika.
Denk's command of the piece was obvious, but so were the supple and expressive ways in which he toyed with Bartok's folk tunes, modal passages and musical banter. The effective interaction between soloist and orchestra made the performance especially satisfying. Some of the credit for that goes to guest conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos, who is clearly a very fine listener.
Bartok completed his final piano concerto in New York City, days before his death in September 1945. His state of mind contradicted his fragile physical condition. Written as a birthday gift for his wife, Ditta, the piece shimmers and bubbles with fun and mischief and includes moments of serene lyricism.
Denk, who writes about music almost as well as he plays it, was the perfect pianist to tackle the piece. His mix of musicality, playfulness and intellectual rigor was just right. He was relaxed, clear about what he wanted to achieve, and happy to share the experience with his colleagues on stage.
In other words, he was comfortable, and his demeanor helped galvanize the audience's attention on the music itself, with its changing meter and octave melodies, fast flourishes and eloquent chord progressions.
It was a treat to witness Denk perform a concerto he clearly admires and own it so entirely. No wonder he received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 2013.
The Bartok surely was the highlight of the concert, but Bairos and the Charleston Symphony also provided a compelling interpretation of Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn and a vigorous rendering of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor. The tune Brahms appropriated for his Romantic sojourn into the Classical style, almost certainly was not penned by Haydn, it turns out, but that factoid doesn't diminish its gentle 10-bar chorale. The 5 + 5 pattern provided Brahms with just the right quirkiness to set him off and running with a set of eight variations plus a finale.
Bairos worked to distinguish each one, emphasizing Brahms' syncopations, juxtaposed meters and lush harmonies. He elicited terrific dynamic contrasts from the players that heightened the effect and worked like chewing gum on an airplane to keep the ear canals clear.
What can be said of the Fifth Symphony? The Charleston Symphony's take on it was quick (perhaps too quick) and clean, with Bairos once again injecting some Romantic fervor by pushing dynamics. It was not an extraordinary performance of the famous piece, but it accelerated the listener's pulse nonetheless, and it reminded him of Beethoven's astonishing genius. In the right hands, large miracles can be achieved with four short notes.
The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Sottile Theatre.