The pianist who puts the blogger in the shade

Musicians today are writing and blogging, speaking directly to their public, involving readers in, yes, process - but also gathering up fans and a cache of personal investment that may or may not have anything to do with the music itself. Does it really matter what the pianist had for breakfast? Friend me, the classical world pleads.

Jeremy Denk is an especially appealing denizen of the electronic ether. Tuesday night's intermission crowd at the Perelman Theater lit up with chatter about his recent New Yorker essay, an illuminating gaze at his own reflection in recordings. I've never met the man, and yet, as an occasional follower of Think Denk, his discursive and sometimes alarmingly perceptive blog, we're old pals.

If hearing an artist objectively was never entirely possible - not 100 percent, I must admit, as long as it's just the two of us talking here - it's also the case that the job now is harder than ever.

In performance, however, certain elemental truths won't be denied. They declare themselves. They confess. And at Tuesday's Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert, Franck's Quintet in F minor, played by Denk and the Tokyo String Quartet, the pianist's personality as a musician overshadowed anything I've read by or about him.

In the sensitive way he weighted his part against the quartet, you could tell there were moments when he knew he was the orchestra, and passages in the first movement of pure pianistic Liszt. In the third, Denk passed naturally from being part of the texture to hero. There's something Wagnerian about the minor triad outlined by Franck - or at least, I suspect, the entire fivesome thought so.

Almost a piece in itself for the mood-apart it maintains, the second movement rolled out as a wondrous fog, prevaricating between major and minor, an extended spell of ambiguity that once again recalled Wagner. No player transgressed its spell with undue ego.

If you looked at the website for the Tokyo String Quartet, you would find your chances to hear them again extremely limited. They come to Philadelphia once more this season, two times next season, and then the two senior members, violinist Kikuei Ikeda and violist Kazuhide Isomura, will retire. Violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith will continue, and they are gems.

As much as I admired the quartet's handling of Grieg's Quartet in G minor (Op. 27) - the conviction with which they pivoted between the first movement's fretting and weeping - it was the Haydn String Quartet (Op. 77, No. 1) that I took home, so to speak. Each player was a master at manipulating his sound: Notes were variously finished off with vibrato, abruptly stopped, or, in the case of open notes, left to ring. What was most impressive was their lean tone and single-minded approach, the sensation that all four players were somehow one instrument being led by a single artistic hand.

Will the new Tokyo String Quartet - if indeed the name continues - be able to pull off Haydn with the same unanimity? Truth, now and always, is available in only one format: Skip the blog and proceed directly to the concert hall.

Peter Dobrin, The Philadelphia Inquirer
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