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Miracle on 56th Street!

New York
David Geffen Hall
01/03/2020 -  & January 4*, 7, 2020
Johannes Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34
Ottorino Respighi: Trittico botticelliano
Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 96 in D major, Hob.I:96, “Miracle”

Frank Huang, Sheryl Staples (violins), Cynthia Phelps (viola), Carter Brey (cello)
New York Philharmonic, Jeffrey Kahane (piano and conductor)

J. Kahane (© E. F. Marton Productions)

“Anyone who did not know it in its earlier forms of string quintet and two-piano sonata would never believe that it was not originally thought out and designed for the present combination of instruments.”
Hermann Levi

The New York Philharmonic seems to own the patent for my favorite concert program: a glorious chamber work, intermission, and then a full-fledged orchestral effort. They opened the new year with such a presentation, adding the absolute greatest work of chamber music ever penned as the appetizer.

One can argue that there are a few efforts more sublime than the Brahms Quintet (even I chose the Schumann Piano Quartet as my theme and signature on the radio), but they would be wrong. What was unexpected was how little I enjoyed this particular rendition of this great work. Although the four first chair players did not disappoint, the Achilles heel of the group was the pianist. Brahms wrote this monumental keyboard part for himself and it requires the mind and hands of not only a genius but also an athlete to pull it off. Sadly, Mr. Kahane could not measure up. Had he not been the maestro for the second half of this concert, it is doubtful that he would have been asked to tickle these particular ivories. Although I have heard several dozen live performances of this work, I cannot remember a weaker keyboard performance. Where was the Sturm und Drang? Where the color? The passion? Just not on stage this day. The conclusion was simply ponderous, the performance as a whole unsatisfying. This reviewer was plainly shocked.

After such a disappointing beginning, what to do in the orchestral half of the program? Well, how about some Beethoven? Oh wait, Respighi just looked like Beethoven, so much so that he was offered the lead in a film about the great master! Trittico botticelliano depicts three Botticelli paintings. With Mr. Kahane now on the podium much of the damage of the first half of the day was eliminated. The best of the triptych was the “Adoration of the Magi” – each movement depicts a different visual masterpiece – with a gorgeously exotic combination of strings and evocative bells. An interesting and appreciated novelty.

Haydn’s “Miracle” Symphony supposedly was premiered on a night when the chandelier fell from the ceiling but no person in the audience was hurt. Eventually historical research found that none of those patrons were injured because it was actually the Symphony No. 102 that was on offer that fateful evening! This was a charming if somewhat forgettable performance, Mr. Kahane somewhat of a follower rather than a leader. I realize that Maestro van Zweden was probably on his Christmas vacation, but really couldn’t a more impressive squadron commander occupy the podium in his absence? At least the ceiling didn’t fall down!

Fred Kirshnit



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