When Jeremy Denk arrived Thursday night in Costa Mesa for a bout with Johannes Brahms, the smart betting was on an imaginative rethink of the thunderous D minor Piano Concerto. Instead, Brahms overwhelmed the best efforts of Denk, conductor Carl St Clair and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, and the result was a fascinating case study in how massive the music's requirements really are. The rest of the program, on an evening called Strauss’ Vienna, tested the orchestra’s endurance in Richard’s Rosenkavalier Suite and soothed its nerves in Johann Strauss II's An der schönen blauen Donau.

Jeremy Denk © Michael Wilson
Jeremy Denk
© Michael Wilson

Denk looked nervous when he came out, acknowledging the applause with two angular bows. The Maestoso launched at the kind of moderately rapid clip that marks modern thinking on what maestoso means, and though the violins were strident at first, by the time the tutti had run it course, the orchestra seemed in very good voice. At first, when Denk crept in with sublimely singing tone, within seconds he seemed to have found an unconventionally intimate Brahmsian groove, quite taking over from the orchestra; but then, after the composer made known his first demands for real firepower, at bar 226 and thereafter, it was clear that this would be an unequal, if refreshing contest.

In the first movement's big Poco più moderato tune, Denk found the nobility of the feeling alongside a sense of structural purity that was his map to the music's movement and pace; he was less comfortable with florid Brahms, no flashes of color, no real emotion. If a pianist were intent on the concerto as a series of internal dialogues with Brahms, using the music as a conduit, this is what the result might be.

Denk's Adagio second movement existed in an intimacy the wonderful bassoons had created as they floated away in thirds through their opening bars; perhaps, as if in reponse, he and St Clair let the movement meander, its lack of purpose liberating Denk to treat each of the piano's many solo episodes as distinct reflections, often speeding up briefly before subsiding into the now more meaningfully understood, original tempo.

The assembled forces started off the Rondo: Allegro non troppo finale with furious energy and tempo, and Denk went all out to put his stamp on the music's expressive content and narrative flow, but in terms of the latter there wasn't less impulse energy than in a Mozart concerto. However, as the musicians made all sorts of splendid noises, with Denk spinning out some beautiful lines, the end came altogether at a very fast, exhilarating tempo. 

After intermission, during which Denk appeared in the lobby and signed copies of his new CDs for an eager coterie of fans, St Clair and the Symphony polished off the Rosenkavalier Suite with unflagging energy, heroic, exquisite solos by the concertmaster and principal cellist, and some heavy-handed celesta sounds. They were best when the spectacular French horns could give full voice to their various iconic whoops, and when they brought out what became, in the hands of Hollywood, gorgeous moments like Tiomkin's score to The Big Sky. The Blue Danube was also more Hollywood than Vienna, uninvolved but lovely, like the romantic view from a Princes Cruise. 

The encores were the most pleasant parts of the night. After Denk had brought the audience to its feet with his climax to the Brahms, he rewarded them generously with a loving performance of the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major K.545 in which his timeless meandering came from the music’s heart. The orchestra’s encore was Johann Strauss I's Thunder and Lightning Polka, in which they roused themselves to one last burst of seductive charming hilarity.