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A fellow equally comfortable on the conductor’s podium and at the piano keyboard

New York
David Geffen Hall
01/03/2020 -  & January 4, 7, 2020
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat Major, K. 482 (cadenzas by J. Kahane)
Ottorino Respighi: Trittico botticelliano
Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 96 in D major, Hob.I:96, “Miracle”

New York Philharmonic, Jeffrey Kahane (piano and conductor)

J. Kahane (© Chris Lee)

Jeffrey Kahane belongs to a rarified group of pianists who are comfortable conducting not only chamber but also symphony orchestras and he is not a stranger to acting as his own conductor while playing piano concertos. In January, he returned to the New York Philharmonic in a triple role, for not only did he conducted and play solo but also participated in a chamber music performance of the magnificent Brahms Piano Quintet.

What I dislike most when I attend concerts during which the piano soloist appears in said double role is the fact that the piano is always positioned perpendicular to the stage edge, where the pianist sits with his back to the audience (NO, I don’t care about seeing his face!), and thus the sound of the piano is invariably diffused. In some halls sitting in the balcony helps; alas here at David Geffen Hall where this reviewer sits, we were not helped by an excellent balance between the orchestra and piano. For his solo vehicle, Mr. Kahane chose probably the most impressive of Mozart’s piano concertos, No. 22. It is demanding for the piano, especially in the finale, and offers the wind section of the orchestra many beautiful solos.

There is always a debate about the wisdom of having or not having a conductor who can relieve the soloist of the burden of the divided task, but Mr. Kahane seemed to enjoy himself in that double role and it looked like the orchestra followed him quite well. Yet not all was perfect, and here I am not sure that one only can blame the double-duty faced by our soloist. I don’t recall this pianist being as superficial as he was this time: the manner of playing was both matter of fact and too facile; there was very little sense of drama and pliant phrasing. I generally do like when the tempo of the movement flows without much fluctuation, but here we had a little unvaried, unbending way of playing, devoid of tenderness. At least when Daniel Barenboim, who we know for decades as one who can hardly control the speed of his fingers, gets to the more lyrical, vocal moments he is still the master of a gorgeous tone and operatic phrasing which I sorely missed with our soloist.

Since Mozart didn’t leave cadenzas for his more demanding concertos, as he might have improvised them himself, Mr. Kahane provided his own to the first and third movements and they were not only stylish, but entertaining too. In a traditional manner our author used the themes of the movement but the most inventive feature was hearing the opening theme : the three notes E-flat, G and B-flat intoned on timpani. This was a novelty albeit with a precedence: it recalls the cadenza Beethoven wrote for the first movement of his seldom performed Piano Concerto in D Major, which itself is the composer’s rewriting of his own famous Violin Concerto.

I found the second movement, a set of four variations, probably the most problematic and it chiefly dealt with the choice of tempo. It is marked Andante and indeed numerous pianists take this indication to heart. Personally, I often admire musicians – not only pianists! – who don’t drag the slow movements of Mozart sonatas or concertos. Here however we have an example of about the most poignant, most melodious – not that other concertos are NOT melodious – movement with a noteworthy exhibition of expressivity and sadness, despair and resignation. Apparently, at the first performance of the work in December of 1785 with Mozart at the keyboard, that Andante had to be repeated, which apparently was a rare occurrence. Now, the question is if all of that can successfully be conveyed in a tempo that is not so much “walking” but more akin to a “power-walk”. What we heard seemed too rushed and made the glorious music sound almost frivolous, happy and lighthearted. Except that it isn’t. Yet the winds, which are an equal partner to the solo piano, were able to play their leading solos beautifully and their timbre was nicely balanced.

In the concluding Allegro, the high spirit of hunting song comes back and the piano displays a great deal of virtuosity flying all over the keyboard with an unending stream of arpeggios and scales. That suddenly comes to an end when a new episode – Andantino cantabile – appears as a moment of serenity. Mozart applied that compositional device previously in the final movements of other piano and violin concertos and here No. 9, also in E flat, comes to mind. Mr. Kahane utilized that chorale-like melody a little later in his equally appealing second cadenza. Over all he was pianistically much more secure in the Finale and there was good-natured interplay between the members of the orchestra and piano. Kahane is definitely a master, knows the score intimately and when necessary adorned the piano part with tasteful ornamentations.

The second half of the program, not reviewed here, consisted of a very rarely performed Trittico botticelliano by Ottorino Respighi and the Symphony No. 96 (known as the Miracle) by Joseph Haydn. That part of the program was already described by my colleague Fred Kirshnit: the performance attended by Mr. Kirshnit instead of the piano concerto featured Brahms Piano Quintet which Mr. Kahane performed with the NY Philharmonic String Quartet ( Frank Huang and Sheryl Staples, violins, Cynthia Phelps, viola, and Carter Brey, cello).

Roman Markowicz



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