An 1800 Concert from the New York Philharmonic

This week the New York Philharmonic is presenting a program that could have been presented, at least theoretically, in 1800.  I attended the Saturday night rendition.  Guest conductor & keyboard artist Jeffrey Kahane brought his great enthusiam and energetic advocacy for the classical repertory of the late 18th century on what is becoming an annual affair between the west coast artist and the east coast orchestra.

On the one hand, this can be considered a very conservative program — J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven — but on the other it was a collection of works that are not that often played in concert, and so the program had a freshness of discovery for audience and musicians.  They opened with a smaller ensemble drawn from the orchestra for Johann Sebastian Bach's Concerto in D Minor for Oboe, Violin and Strings, BWV 1060.  Philharmonic soloists Sheryl Staples (violin) and Liang Wang (oboe) stood amidst a relatively small string group next to the harpsichord, where Kahane presided as both continuo leader and conductor, achieving unity through gesture, head nodding, finger pointing, and the rhythmic and tempo underpinning of the continuo he shared with bassoonist Judith LeClair and the bass string instruments.  What impressed was the lightness Kahane achieved with this ensemble — as compared to the rather heavy-handed Brandenburg Concerti that Loren Maazel gave us during his exposition of the concerti several years ago.  The Philharmonic last played this in 2005 under a guest conductor, and it was a welcome return for the piece, which should be kept firmly in the repertory.

The first half ended with Mozart's Symphony No. 33, K. 319, last played by the NYP more than twenty years ago, and certainly worth reviving.  This is the Mozart of his mid-20s, having absorbed what the Bach brothers (J.C. and C.P.E.) had done to advance the symphony and anticipating in some ways what he would achieve in the coming decade of the 1780s in absorbing the innovations of Haydn. A larger string body (almost, but not quite, the normal NYP string section) provided a more luxuriant sound than we heard in the Bach, and to good effect.  It is well to remember that Mozart always craved more strings in his orchestras, commenting thus in his letters, and I'm sure he would have been pleased with the depth of sound and sprightly pace in the allegros, suitable pathos in the slower movement, and sturdy sail through the minuet.  This was an excellent performance to set up the finale.

Mr. Kahane conducted from the harpsichord in the Mozart, using an iPad instead of sheet music and only occasionally interpolating some harpsichord notes in the bass.  With the larger string body, his harpsichord – not amplified – was barely audible, but then most performances of middle period Mozart today dispense entirely with the harpsichord as being unnecessary in light of the thickness of the orchestral scoring.

After intermission, a grand piano – lidless – replaced the harpsichord, and Kahane led the orchestra a merry chase through Beethoven's first published (but second written) piano concerto.  This is a piece that brings the classical world of Mozart and Haydn to their summit, with intimations of the revolutionary that Beethoven would become.  While its feet are set firmly in the 18th century tradition, its heart is already beating to the innovations of the early 19th century that would cement Beethoven's place in musical history. 

The performance by Kahane and the orchestra, only slightly larger than the Mozart orchestra with the addition of winds and tympani, emphasized the youthful excitement of discovery.  Kahane is obviously excited by this music, and plays it with a freshness — even insouciance — that is totally winning, and brings the orchestra along with him.  Even though the Philharmonic has played this piece frequently — most recently with Lang Lang in 2008 — one nonetheless had the feeling that the musicians were enjoying rediscovering it through Kahane's ears and inventive musical mind.  It was definitely the highlight of the concert.

Kahane's visits with the Philharmonic are most welcome, like a palate-cleanser for the string section after the steady diet of later romantic, post-romantic and 20th century modernism that occupies most of their concert repertory.  I hope there will be many more such visits.  He is always a joy to hear.

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