Only a couple of years separate Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 and No. 23, but there can be few better illustrations of the development of his composition. As pianist Jeremy Denk put it in his introductory remarks to the closing concert of this year’s Lammermuir Festival, and his residency in East Lothian, the earlier work is one of by “the mad scientist in his laboratory”, while the A Major is the work of the mature talent who was also writing The Magic Flute.
My guess is that Denk and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra devoted more of their rehearsal time to the less-performed work. The E-flat Major was a certainly played by the composer, but it was the first of two written for his talented pupil Barbara von Ployer, “Babette”, the daughter of a Viennese councillor. With just 14 strings and minor roles for pairs of horns and oboes, this performance was historically-informed in its detail and precision-honed in its balance, particularly in the Andantino second movement. With his back to the audience and the lid off the Steinway, around which the players were assembled, Denk was a hands-on director of the music here, which meant that we were denied his charismatic facial expressions, now directed to them, and especially first violin Stephanie Gonley.
This mix of spare ingredients was marginally less successful in the more familiar work where bassoons, clarinets and a flute are added and the reverberant acoustic of the kirk meant things were less distinct. Denk treated his first movement cadenza less as a solo than as piece of plot exposition on the road to the Adagio, where he shared one of Mozart’s best tunes with the clarinet of Maximiliano Martin. By the finale it was clear that this was a piece of larger conception in every department but it lacked some of the finesse of the programme’s opener.
Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No 12 in E Major was a well-chosen partner to the concertos, and Gonley guided her colleagues expertly through a work that was breaking new ground twenty years earlier, in both its key and a central movement with bold rhythms and modulations. The lower strings had more of a voice here, and the SCO’s leader was always in firm control of the dynamics in the space.
The Navarra Quartet like to do things their own way. At least that was the impression taken from the second of their two appearances at this year’s Lammermuir Festival, in which they teamed up with BBC SSO principal viola Scott Dickinson for Dvorak’s “American” String Quintet, but not before marking their pitch big time in Mozart’s String Quartet No 16 in E-flat.
The latter was subjected to a show of bravado bordering on assault. It was, I am sure, entirely well-meaning, given the unsettling questioning and ambiguities which Mozart piles into his intriguing score. But in over-egging these – as in the lurching semitone slides that veered towards parody – what was perhaps intended as illuminating exaggeration transmitted more as mischief.
Whether the resulting instability of tuning and confusion of pulse was symptomatic is a moot question. It was a brave and challenging approach, but one that ultimately shot itself in the foot.
Before the Dvorak, Ivan Moseley’s Ah Robin, which takes 16th century composer William Cornysh’s original song and puts it through a 21st century wringer, transforming it – rather beguilingly – out of all recognition, afforded a moment for recovery. Moseley’s ingenious transformations, ending in a whimsical puff of smoke, sat perfectly with the Navarra’s gauche demeanour.
And it laid the ground for an easier acceptance of their Dvorak, which was again subject to spontaneous bursts of eccentricity, but this time in a piece that could easily support it. The finest moments were towards the end, the gorgeous sonorities of the two violas and cello in the Larghetto variations, and the irresistible thrills of the final Allegro giusto.
The encore brought yet another unconventional touch, the haunting chromatic non sequiturs of the 16th century reactionary Carlo Gesualdo recast for string quintet. It was a rare treat, utterly surreal and a far stronger case for the Navarra’s pugnacious individualism than the Mozart they began with.
The former SCO principal bassoonist Peter Whelan is forging a formidable reputation as a conductor, not just with his own group Ensemble Marsyas, but with a growing number of orchestras that recognise the spark he brings to the podium. The coming season adds to his conquests a Vivaldi opera the Royal Opera House and a guest appearance in Finland with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.
On Saturday, Whelan took charge of the BBC SSO in a programme that reinforced his natural affinity with the clinical panache of the Classical symphony and the ultra-fine sensitivity of Benjamin Britten.
He began with Haydn, and the joyous adventuring of the 1760s’ Symphony No 35 in B flat. It features the composer in a mood of relaxed excitability, and in this performance, as rhythmically taut as it was expressively supple, Whelan allowed its myriad surprises to surface gleefully within a framework of logic and symmetry.
The SSO horns made light work of Haydn’s stratospheric demands. The strings evoked a warmth that only once – in the exposed violin melodies of the Andante – seemed to waver, perhaps due to the players’ continued social distancing. The curt ending, a kind of “that’s all folks” dismissal, was entirely in keeping with the tempered humour Whelan elicited from its four movements.
Britten’s 1958 Nocturne for tenor and small orchestra, written as a companion piece to the more familiar Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and dedicated to Alma Mahler, transported us into a giddy world of dreams as expressed through selected texts from Shelley, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare.
Tenor Joshua Ellicott expressed Britten’s continuous sequence exquisitely and intimately, the penetrating purity of his voice capable of harnessing intense passion as well as serene mysticism, and everything in between. The result was a performance of compelling poeticism and powerfully controlled tension, further enhanced by the strings’ gossamer precision and evocative wind solos.
Mozart’s popular Symphony No 40, cheeriness in a minor key, gave a final pleasing symmetry to this programme. It was fast and fearless, with just an occasional blurring of the edges in these generous ecclesiastical acoustics. As in the Haydn, Whelan revealed a willingness to hand much of the responsibility to the players, economic in his gestures, but always at hand to bring down a decisive beat and keep the outer skin firmly in place.
There was real chemistry in this performance. The SSO should further this conductor relationship.
Had Jeremy Denk’s second solo recital as artist-in-residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival consisted solely of Bach’s Partita No 5 in G Major and Beethoven’s remarkable final piano sonata, the Opus 111 in C Minor, few would have complained.
Both works are, in their very different ways, explorations of the nature of time. Denk strode on to the platform and was straight down to business with the Bach, although piano-playing for him is clearly more on the “pleasure” side of the equation – and he is eager to share the joy. His internal metronome is calibrated precisely enough that he can ease the strict tempo as the work unfolds and allow a little elasticity in movements that may be based on dance rhythms but were never intended for dancing.
The Beethoven, on the other hand, was eloquently introduced, its contrasting movements, in the pianist’s phrase, “a vision of one thing, and its antidote”, a remembrance of the past and a picture of the future so bold that there was nothing more the composer could say in this form. Denk gave the work an unforgettable probing performance, constantly moving with the fluid currents of the writing with an obvious reluctance to give in to any obvious “hook” in mere repetition.
However, it was what came between these two masterworks that elevated the concert to classic status. The suite of four pieces that Denk had assembled, in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests around the globe, began with London-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s treatment of the African-American tune They will not lend me a child and culminated in Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues from the late 1970s. It is an astonishing piece of post-minimalist expressionism that uses the full power of a grand piano in its motorik exploration of the dignity of labour as well as its trials.
The Coleridge-Taylor was followed by another remarkable work in “Blind Tom” Wiggins’s The Battle of Manassas, which re-creates, with samples and dialogue, an event in the American Civil War and, while more of a music-hall turn, is only slightly less creative in the use of the instrument, yet was written a full century before.
The cacophony of the battlefield was still dying away when Denk segued into Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin, the latter being a black ragtime composer who has the dubious honour of beating bluesman Robert Johnson to membership of the “27 Club” by 30 years, and Jimi Hendrix by more than another 30.
The earlier works were all effectively a pathway to the Rzewski, whose work is surely now ripe for reappraisal following his death at the end of June this year, at 83. Denk’s timely and thoughtful placing of it here was the ideal start.
As artistic life opens up and opera makes its gradual stage comeback, it’s vitally important to witness such a predominance of youth in Scottish Opera’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which received its live premiere at this year’s Lammermuir Festival. Roxana Haines’ ballsy new production – created initially for last December’s filmed version – lends itself well to such bright young things and the refreshing open-mindedness that comes as a consequence.
They are what makes a scintillating success of this opera, despite the convoluted nonsense that is its plot, and despite the fact that transferring Haines’ clever production ideas for the filmed format to live stage diminishes to an extent its previous edge. Rationalising the unlikely love entanglements as a modern-day reality TV show was, in the original media concept, a convincing hit. In the vastness of St Mary’s Church, and without the camera tricks to reinforce the message, its impact seemed diluted, at least visually.
The positive consequence was the immediacy of the performance. Here were singers responding as much to the audience’s close presence, its spontaneous applause, as to Mozart’s theatrical score. It helped that they were out front as first point of visual contact, the orchestra and chorus under music director Stuart Stratford stretching far into the darkened distance behind. Minimal props on a raised stage sharpened the central focus.
Rarely will you find a more integrated team for Così than this one, eliciting a spontaneous camaraderie that informed every action and reaction, but equally triumphed in the opera’s memorable ensemble numbers. But here was individuality too, each character richly coloured with his or her own demeanour and personality.
Margo Arsane (Dorabella) and Charlie Drummond (Fiordiligi) played the sisters like two sides of the same coin, Arsane’s juicy flippancy and vocal delicacy an affectionate contrast to the glowing maturity of Drummond’s wholesomely versatile soprano. The tender, passionate tenor of Shengzhi Ren (Ferrando) proved the perfect foil to Arthur Bruce’s fast-acting Guglielmo, his rich lyrical baritone finding natural resonance in the church acoustics.
The playmakers – Michael Mofidian as the tricksy Don Alfonso (the game show host in Haines’ production) and the characterful Catriona Hewitson as the colluding Despina – were an artful pairing.
If there was an inevitable sense of distance from the orchestra and chorus, Stratford’s punchy direction captured the lively spirit of the piece, but also accommodated its many poised and beautiful moments.
Renaissance man Jeremy Sams is as likely to be found working in the West End as at Garsington or Grange Park Opera, and while his soundtracks feature on works for the large and small screen as well as the stage, his translations of Italian libretto and, more recently, German Lieder, have done more to make music accessible than any number of arts council initiatives.
In the context of his vast back catalogue, this brilliant little show looks like the sort of thing he might knock off in an afternoon, but I am sure that its deceptive breeziness masks a vast amount of work. It is also a rather larger show than it appears, featuring five developed roles for five fine singers with finely-honed acting skills, and a demanding shift for the pianist (co-creator of the show, Christopher Glynn).
Taking its cue from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte – which Lammermuir had happily featured in a compact Scottish Opera version a few days previously – this staging of Hugo Wolf’s combination of German and Italian influences in something that is not a million miles from the stories of Garrison Keillor, Armistead Maupin or The Archers, is rather more carefully plotted than the original. Crucially, however, Sams and Glynn (and co-director Louise Shepherd for this staging) do not labour either the parallels with Da Ponte’s tale of fickle lovers or their own narrative. The structure is there – and the performers have great fun with it – but the music is never in second place.
This cast, which tours the show to Liverpool, Bristol and London, has tenors Robert Murray and James Wray teamed with Kathryn Rudge and Rowan Pierce, and baritone Roderick Williams as the notebook-wielding Don Alfonso figure. He’s a manipulative rather than malevolent figure, but still destined to come a cropper, and the playfulness with such stereotypes also embraces the cynical soprano and tempestuous mezzo while the chaps juggled “innocent” and “hapless”. There was no social distancing on stage, but the performers had great fun with their characters’ gaps of understanding.
All five sang superbly, relishing the intimacy of the occasion with a huge range of dynamics, and making the most of Sams’ delicious wordplay, which fully realises the humour of Wolfe and his librettist Paul Heyse as well as adding a good deal of wit of his own.
There have, perhaps, been many similar shows, from Ned Sherrin’s Side by Side by Sondheim through to the format Graham Vick invented for Scottish Opera to reach remote parts of Scotland, which, as Scottish Opera Highlights, opens in its umpteenth touring incarnation this week, but few have been as slick and clever as this one.
Having long been a fan of New York-based pianist Jeremy Denk’s thoughtful recordings for the Nonesuch label, and learning only recently that I had missed three chances over the past decade to see him perform a mere 30 miles from my home, his arrival as artist-in-residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival is a particular delight.
It turns out that Denk, who is becoming as noted a wordsmith as he is a musician, is a wonderfully characterful performer. His opening concert, of Book One of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, may technically have been his first public performance of the work from memory, but his opening remarks made clear that these are pieces he has known since childhood. The parallel he drew between his own stern father over-seeing his keyboard practice and Papa Bach’s position as the architect of Western music may have been personal, but it perfectly set up his playing of what are some of the best-known opening bars of music in the canon. For those whose first re-acquaintance with live music this was, they could not fail to be especially moving.
Playing this music is also a perfect match for the memoir of music lessons and teachers that Denk has been working on. Even listeners much less musically-literate than him can hear in Bach’s progression through the notated keys, and in playing that progressed from intimate to expansive over the course of the evening, the building blocks of composition. For the young pianist the Preludes and Fugues develop mental agility as much as manual dexterity as themes swap between the hands, or span both. It is like listening to Lego in the hands of a master-builder.
And if that suggests a certain playfulness in Denk’s approach, that is exactly correct. He found intimations of the cartoon music of Raymond Scott and Carl Stalling at points, as well as reminders that pianists from Jacques Loussier to Brad Mehldau have found jazz inspiration in Bach’s works.
More than that, and although he is far from being a flamboyant performer, Denk is apt to cast a knowing glance at the audience to be sure we are not missing a little musical joke, and his facial expressions are often in limpid contrast to the frenetic fingering going on. Technically brilliant, his playing is never “clinical”, as the sports-reporting cliché would have it, with an occasional buzzing string or foot stomp all part of the evening.
Having waited a while to see him live, the other pianist Denk occasionally brought to mind was the late Dudley Moore, who may be better known for his comedy and films, but was a damned fine jazz piano-player. In a very similar way, Denk is clearly entirely in his element at the keyboard.
Pianist Jeremy Denk talks words and music with Keith Bruce on the eve of his residency at the Lammermuir Festival.
Pianist Jeremy Denk has just had a negative Covid test and is cleared to fly to Scotland when I connect via Zoom to his New York apartment. He has also survived, unscathed, the storm and flooding that recently hit the city. “I stayed in that night and shut the windows, in a very New Yorker fashion,” he deadpans.
Denk is artist-in-residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival, giving four concerts that cover the range of his musical practice, from solo Bach (The Well-Tempered Clavier) and a more varied solo recital, to chamber music with violinist Maria Wloszczowska and members of the SCO and the festival’s concluding concert with the full orchestra, playing two Mozart concertos.
Like British pianist Stephen Hough, however, Denk’s artistic life also embraces writing, which began as a blog, “Think Denk”, and will soon see the publication of a memoir that expands on a celebrated article about his piano teachers for New Yorker magazine.
That meant he was not idle when the worldwide spread of the coronavirus brought the music industry to a standstill.
“I used it as a work retreat. I had this book that I was supposed to finish, so I used a fair amount of the early pandemic to write and I was lucky to have that outlet, which was all-consuming for a while.
“I also learned a bunch of newish pieces and I was working on The Well-Tempered Clavier. I did a video version of that earlier this year and it is a piece that is still in that nice honeymoon phase – every day it is different. I played it twice before the pandemic started, both with the music, but this will be the first time I play it from memory.”
The pianist is delighted that his brief for Lammermuir was simply to do things that he enjoys doing. Playing Mozart concertos is one of those, the two that feature in the East Lothian festival coming just days after the release of a different pair on his latest recording for the Nonesuch label.
“Mozart concertos work much better for me when they feel like chamber music and you get to talk to the winds, and sympathise with them, and bring the contact closer.
“One of the problems is often they are sitting way back on the stage, when they are really proxy opera characters, if you think of Mozart himself as at the piano. He often wants to cede the stage to the oboe or the rapscallion bassoon, and when I rehearse with an orchestra I look for the freedom to find that.”
Piano Concerto No 23, which will close Lammermuir at St Mary’s Parish Church in Haddington, has been very much on Denk’s mind.
“In my book I was writing about that A major K488, which was the first Mozart concerto I learned when I was 12 years old, so it has a Proustian element for me.
“The piece for the New Yorker had lots of gaps and missed out lots of teachers who helped me. I was a clueless kid; I went to college a little young and I had to do a lot of growing up in a very short time. During the pandemic I found I could access those memories more directly than in the past.
“So it goes from my first musical memories with my father and the neighbourhood piano teacher, aged five, through to my New York debut when I was 26.”
What, I wonder, had prompted the urge to commit those memories to publication?
“Piano players spend a lot of time on their own,” he suggests, “so we have a lot of thoughts we have to unburden. I am extremely grateful to my teachers and I often feel regretful that I don’t follow their advice as closely as I should, so it didn’t take any particular prompting.
“And I have always been a looker-backer; even when I was six years old I had a premature nostalgic streak. Books were always my great refuge, along with the piano, so writing is a very natural outlet. Even if I watch more Netflix than I read now, I still wish it wasn’t so!”
Denk writes very eloquently indeed about music, and the new album, recorded with Minnesota’s St Paul Chamber Orchestra, has a fine booklet note, especially on Concerto No 25 in C Major, K503.
“The C Major is one of Mozart’s greatest achievements, it has this weird ecstasy which is unlike any other Mozart piece,” he tells me. “It is a love letter to harmony. Mozart has found two elements of beauty in the world of harmony, the seventh chord and the instability between major and minor, and he explores them in such profusion. I like obsessive pieces and that is an obsessive piece.”
So too, says Denk, is Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Opus 111, also in C major, which will conclude the pianist’s third concert in Dunbar Parish Church, and which was on a Nonesuch release in 2012, bracketed, brilliantly, by Ligeti Piano Etudes.
“It takes a rhythmic principle and adds a weird asymmetry. There is an element of chaos theory there that is also obsessive. Beethoven was obsessed by reinventing rhythm by destroying it. Time refuses to settle, and this continuing reinvention of time was what Beethoven was after in his later years.”
That remarkable work ends a recital that begins with a Bach Partita but takes a more modern turn in the works between.
“That suite of pieces was inspired by racial protests of last summer. Mostly, the other pieces talk to the Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which is a very powerful musical translation of an incidence of American injustice. The Blind Tom Wiggins is an account of a Confederate victory during the Civil War, and is extremely violent, while the others are more lyrical.”
If there is a narrative there, then that is only indicative of how Denk’s mind works, both in considering his own life and the music he performs, as the latest chapter of his career plays out.
“Apart from a few scattered things, I have been doing more teaching than playing this summer, and this will be my first trip overseas. My experience of Scotland is very limited so this time I hope to immerse myself, although I am a very cautious person by nature so I will be keeping my distance! But I am so thrilled to be performing for people again.”
Jeremy Denk appears at Dunbar Parish Church on September 10, 14 and 16, and St Mary’s, Haddington on September 20. lammermuirfestival.co.uk
Mozart Piano Concertos by Jeremy Denk and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra is released by Nonesuch on September 17.