The usually carefully played standard of the Van Cliburn Foundation turned into impassioned music right in front of the Bass Hall audience on Monday. While the entire concert was spectacular, the stuffy old standard, Dvorák Piano Quintet, really caught fire. Even more impressive is that it was a pianist, Jeremy Denk, who led the charge.
The Cliburn at the Bass concert series presented an all-Czech program performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, or at least its most recent incarnation. Recent personnel include Denk, who was joined by violinists Erin Keefe and Arnaud Sussmann, violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Andres Diaz, who is an associate professor of music at Southern Methodist University. Keefe had already impressed this past summer when she played for the Mimir Chamber Music Festival and she was even better in this concert.
The program opened with some graceful Bagatelles for Piano, Two Violins and Cello, Op. 46 by Dvorák. This is an unusual combination with a viola usually in the second violin spot in a standard piano trio. The two violinists stood as they played the piece, from the lovely first movement to the rollicking finale. Although a viola would have added another fifth to the bottom of the string harmonies, the piece didn't sound overly treble. However, the overall impression was that this is an excellent piece by a first-class composer working at overdrive. This was a performance that drives you to buy a CD of these rarely heard pieces.
Denk took center stage for a stylist performance of two Czech Dances for piano solo by Bedřich Smetana. The first was a polka, although it didn't sound much like the popular version of that dance. The other was a furiant, a Bohemian dance that alternates 2/4 and 3/4 time. Once again, it sounded more like a romantic virtuoso showpiece than a peasant dance, but Denk certainly made the most of the opportunity.
Bohuslav Martinů is more known as an historical name than by his music, even among classical music buffs, even though his extensive 400-plus catalog of compositions gets occasional outings. His Duo No. 1 for Violin and Viola makes a great case for further performances of his works. Sussmann and Neubauer did the honors. Both were impressive, but Neuberger's stunning viola won by a nose. The first movement was filled with a constant barrage of fast notes. This gave way to an evocative second movement that was full of muted shimmering chords. The last movement brought out the composer's ability with harmonic structure, which was even more amazing because there were just the two instruments playing.
However, it was the Dvorák that was the take-away memory. Denk was in constant contact with Keefe, even if he had to (awkwardly) look past Sussmann the whole time to do it. However, this contact was critical to his success and thus the high spirit of the performance. He led where he had to and accompanied where Dvorak wanted him to do so. There were times he might have erred to the assertive, but he was never over the line.
Diaz played the gorgeous opening cello solo without fuss, but with a rich and deep sonority. Neubauer returned the favor when he opened the second movement. In the Dumka movement, the players took full advantage of the constant contrasts inherent in the form. The switching back and forth between sorrowful and high-spirited sections was deftly handled, so that there was a lot of contrast but no shocking transitions. The last movement was as fast as it can be played, but it didn't sound rushed or pressed. It just sounded like all five musicians were in high spirits and having a great time.
So did the audience.