photos courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

photos courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Where material like this is concerned, in which, as in Faust, such dark, primeval, demonic forces are inextricable combined, analysis can never be complete. The work is sui generis, incomparable and enigmatic from the evening of its first performance to the present day. “” alfred einstein on mozart’s Don Giovanni

one such present day was last night’s premiere of the TSO’s all-mozart program titled Denk Plays Mozart. it began with his overture to Don Giovanni (conducted by simon rivard), then on to the Piano Concerto No.14 with pianist jeremy denk, closing the first half of the evening with the short and morose Rondo in A Minor---the second half belonged entirely to the Piano Concerto No.25.

i enjoyed myself a bit of serendipity to discover that the compilation i’m currently listening to as part of my weekly vinyl series happens to have that same Don Giovanni overture---throw in the fact that i had chosen this week’s compositions back in july of 2018, and serendipity turns to spook. or perhaps it's not so serendipitous, as the pairing of mozart and the month of may is as obvious as tchaikovsky and december or flat tires and job interviews. his music, especially in the earlier creative period, is the spirit, aesthetic and aura of spring: pretty to hear and has the frolicsomeness of a thing recently unfettered from the austerities and stringencies of winter, but there’s also something vicious in it--or at least capable of vice--something of the young and gallivanting. something snide and clever, looking to put itself about a bit, make em’ jump...

Oui, by the love of my skin, I shit on your nose, so it runs down your chin. I kiss your hands, your face, your knees, and your --------, that is, whatever you let me kiss “” mozart in a letter to his cousin maria anna

the first two notes of the Giovanni overture mimic the death knell of the title character when he’s faced with zombie-statue of the man he murdered---then it quickly gives way to the trifling nonchalance characteristic of his overture for Cosi Fan Tutte. play and vice, the two motives driving a composer known equally for the sprightliness of his pastoral settings as for the fecundity of his perverse imagination...

I’ll be sleeping with my dear little wife;---Spruce up your sweet little nest because my little rascal here really deserves it, he has been very well behaved but now he’s itching to possess your sweet … [scratched out]“” mozart in a letter to his wife, constanze

speaking of stringencies, most the program was executed without a conductor; simon rivard’s brief stint at the podium for the Giovanni overture---an efficient and effortless affair---was the last we saw of the baton.

the program seems to share it’s structure with many of mozart’s piano concertos: a long development section in the orchestra before the solo instrument makes its entrance. indeed by the time denk made his entrance, the spell had been cast, the atmosphere sufficiently enchanted and the necessary lozenges noisily unwrapped. with a bit of a hop and a skip, denk is on stage in a smooth and sleek black suit and long jolly strides towards the glittering grand piano (of the very expensive New York Steinway Concert variety). this program is his latest stop in an intracontinental recital tour that ends in Carnegie Hall. his website is replete with the usual plethora of accolades and notable appearances with eminent orchestras around the world---so there was no doubt going into the performance of the awesomeness of his prowess. but it’s one thing to be a more than capable concert pianist and then another quite extra thing to be a great performer, a subscriber to the audience’s attention, a bulldozer of fourth-walls...aside from his mastery of the instrument--strong in its percussive utterances and supple with in it’s lyrical instances--he is also a very good actor.

According to the composer’s wife, Constanze, the great overture to Don Giovanni was written during the night of October 27, less that two days before the premiere. Mozart asked for punch to keep himself awake, to no avail, falling asleep until 5am, yet still able to complete it for the copyist’s arrival at 7am. “” kevin bazzana, TSO program notes

in the style of contemporary superstars like lang lang and khatia buniatishvili---those who have as much for the viewers as for the listeners---denk is the perfect soloist for the small-orchestra intimate setting of this program. his tendencies to gesture with his head towards the audience (while his hands remain busy at the keys), to stomp with his feet and anticipate upcoming flourishes with eyebrow acrobatics are exactly the character-type that the concerto format is meant for: the crowd pleasers who, like the audience, are there expressly to have a good time. denk looked like he was having a great time up there in genuine dialogue with the orchestra, though he knows where they are going to be, he is able to react to where they are.

The Don Giovanni overture, when performed as part of the opera, comes to a gentle halt, leading seamlessly into Act 1. Mozart composed an alternate, boisterous ending for concert performance. On a separate sheet of paper inserted into the autograph score, he wrote out the extra dozen bars--undoubtedly at 6:59am, with his free hand, while shaving. “” kevin bazzana, TSO program notes for Overture to Don Giovanni

the Piano Concerto No.14 in E-flat Major marks the beginning of what has been referred to as mozart’s “golden dozen”---the stretch of concertos for that instrument composed between february 1784 and december 1786, ending with his Piano Concerto No.25 in C Major, the last item on the program. No. 14 is characteristic of what comes to mind when we briefly imagine a concerto by mozart: cheerful, brisk, timeless and without too many sharp edges. as such the orchestra began the performance with the necessary lightness of touch, and a touch of light, in the Allegro Vivace section.

the second movement, Andantino (slightly lighter and quicker than andante), was a mock-morose contrasting set-up to the final movement. the melancholy that befalls the solo instrument doesn’t quite make it to the string section as the rays of light cast from the preceding Allegro vivace perforates the thin veneer of overcast contemplation accentuated by denk’s performance. the third movement speeds up into Allegro ma non troppo, and is executed by orchestra as cheerfully as dance music.

photos courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

photos courtesy of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Compared with his subsequent piano concertos, it is more modest in duration and calls for a smaller orchestra. Some scholars speculate that his reason for reducing the accompanying ensemble was to give soloists the plausible option of performing it as a chamber work, with string quartet accompaniment, when no orchestra was available. “” don anderson, TSO program notes for Concerto No.14

a less than capacity turn-out last night actually turned out to benefit the intimacy of the performance and the reduced size of the orchestra, creating a mood more akin to chamber music than Roy Thomson Hall. so cozy and communal was the atmosphere that denk chose to deliver his commentary on the third item in the program, the Rondo in A Minor, without the use of a microphone--perhaps too much dedication to period aesthetics?--but the effect only added to the magnitude of his stage presence.  

by 1786, the year mozart composed the Piano Concerto No.25, he was readying to doff his reputation as salzburgian boy-wonder and bring his artistry into the intrigues and terrifying sensualities of 18th century vienna. along with this maturity came the ineluctable sense of gravity and mélancolie that was intent on competing with joy and jollity for the character of his late concertos…

But though mostly bright and festive, the music sometimes veers off strikingly into darker emotional territory, and though rich in ideas, it is cohesive and intently argued. “” kevin bazzana, TSO program notes for Piano Concerto No.25 in C Major

it’s a top-heavy concerto with a long development section in Allegro maestoso. after much restlessness and pseudo-conducting, denk finally introduces the piano and guides the orchestra throughout a vibrant first movement of synchronized gaiety. the solo instrument then takes a back seat in the slow Andante section and the orchestra, notably the horn section, takes the lead through sombre and reflective musical gestures. audrey good is great on the french horn, articulating the warmth of the instrument’s short repetitive phrases through the movement. the closing movement, Allegretto, was an eyes-wide-open meditative experience, denk’s undertakes seemingly never-ending cadenzas with a natural showmanship that comes more from true feeling than memorized technique.

like concerts in any other genre, it’s the smaller scale venues and house-shows that feel the most special, it’s programs like these that remain in memory, wherein the pomp and ceremony are stripped away and the talent of an excellent musician is laid bare. Denk Plays Mozart runs until saturday june 1st.

and of course: GO RAPTORS!!!