Music Review: Jeremy Denk and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

December 4th, 2012

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Jeremy Denk at the piano, playing and conducting six Bach keyboard concertos on Sunday afternoon at Alice Tully Hall.

Though performing a substantive program of challenging music is hard work, it should also be fun. But should performers have quite as much fun as the pianist Jeremy Denk and an ensemble of 11 string players from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had on Sunday afternoon, when they performed six of Bach’s seven keyboard concertos at Alice Tully Hall?

Absolutely, if doing so makes for such exhilarating results. Looking as if there were nothing he would rather be doing, Mr. Denk played these concertos, conceived for harpsichord, on the piano, with the lid removed and his back to the audience so he could lead the ensemble. He swayed along with the swings in the music, his feet almost dancing when they were not occupied with the pedals, which he used very lightly.

This program, which opened the society’s annual Baroque Festival, was Mr. Denk’s opportunity to put across his bracing approach to this music, which favored spontaneity, rhythmic élan and bold character over exacting execution. Yet the performances had the collegiality and ease of great chamber-music playing. Among the artists in the ensemble were veterans like the cellist Fred Sherry and the violinist Ani Kavafian, joined by rising younger players like the violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Sean Lee. Everyone seemed to be having a terrific time.

It is thought that Bach composed his keyboard concertos for entertainments at his home and for concerts of the Collegium Musicum, an informal organization founded by the young Telemann in Leipzig in 1704. The collegium’s popular performances sometimes spilled over into after-hours sessions at Leipzig coffee houses.

If only Sunday’s performances could have taken place at the Lincoln Center equivalent of a Leipzig coffee house, say, the Kaplan Penthouse. Mr. Denk’s piano sound was sometimes lost in the Tully Hall space.

But articulating passagework with pristine clarity was not his priority. Capturing the character and sweep of the music was. In these keyboard concertos Bach recycled and adapted movements from existing pieces, including violin concertos and vocal works.

The Concerto in A was based on a concerto for oboe d’amore. In the first movement, taken here at a swift tempo, the right hand goes on a melodic adventure, with lyrical phrases breaking into elaborations that keep you off guard. Often the winding melodic line stops on some note that at first seems wrong. But in a flash Bach tucks it into a new harmonic twist.

Mr. Denk relished this quality in the music, spinning out lines like a jazz improviser and teasing out the surprises.

Often — for example, in the restless first movement of the Concerto in G minor — Mr. Denk seemed so swept away that he rushed the tempo. But his string-playing colleagues just went with the flow, beaming all the way.

The best-known movements from these concertos — the nobly lyrical Largo from the Concerto in F minor, the stormy first movement of the Concerto in D minor — emerged with new immediacy in these inspired performances. The ardent ovation was no surprise.

This program repeats on Tuesday at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center; (212)875-5788, chambermusicsociety.org.

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