An All-Around Musician: Jeffrey Kahane Conducts and Performs Bach, Mozart and Beethoven

United StatesUnited States J.S Bach, Mozart, BeethovenSheryl Staples (violin), Liang Wang (oboe), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Jeffrey Kahane (conductor, harpsichord and piano), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City, 22.11.2011 (SSM)

J. S. Bach: Concerto in D minor for Oboe, Violin and Strings, BWV 1060
Mozart: Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major, K.319
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, Op. 15

Jeffrey Kahane Courtesy of CM Artists NewYork

Jeffrey Kahane has succeeded where others have failed in leading members of the New York Philharmonic in a spirited concert of music that spans the eighteenth-century from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven. In a previous concert, Alan Gilbert led and soloed with Frank Peter Zimmerman in Bach’s Concerto in D minor BWV 1043, a work similar in style and substance to the D minor Concerto for Oboe and Violin performed here. Gilbert actually used a smaller ensemble of sixteen players to Kahane’s twenty, but made little attempt to moderate the vibrato or temper the more Romantic tendencies of the orchestra. The result was a performance that was muddy at times and seemed to be working against the acoustics of the hall. (The New York Philharmonic, aware of the problem with performing early music, hangs large pods from the ceiling during its Mostly Mozart Festivals.)

Kahane, conducting from the harpsichord, as part of the basso continuo section of the orchestra, clearly had an understanding of what was required to brighten and enliven the concerto, and the orchestra played crisply, with a minimum of vibrato. The soloists, Sheryl Staples and Liang Wang, were generally well-balanced with the violin occasionally overpowering the oboe. The second movement marked Adagio is in all respects a Siciliano similar in style to the second movement Siciliano of the keyboard concerto BWV 1053; both pieces are in 12/8 time and start out with pizzicati played by the violins and violas, lulled along by a mellifluous rocking motion. Echoing each other, the two soloists other gave a sensitive and expressive turn to this movement and the piece concluded with a lively Allegro.

The next work, Mozart’s Symphony No. 33, brought a few more instruments on to the stage but kept the harpsichord. This wasn’t because Mozart included the instrument in the score, but based on historic information, he often improvised on one when a keyboard concerto preceded a work without a keyboard. I’m not sure if Kahane was following the bass line as he would for earlier works where the keyboard is part of the basso continuo section because whatever he was playing was totally drowned out by the orchestra. The famous Jupiter theme, as mentioned in the program notes, suddenly appears out of nowhere in the development section. This four note theme being the basis of the last movement of the Symphony No. 41 is also the theme of the Symphony No. 25.

Kahane might have had difficulty conducting while playing the harpsichord if he didn’t have the score on an IPad. I’ve seen this device used by a pianist who controlled the page turning by two wireless buttons next to his piano pedals, but this was the first time I’d seen it used by a conductor. For the pianist at the earlier concert the IPad was positioned horizontally, but for Kahane the score was positioned vertically. (I can see this device being used for a Bach or Mozart score, but I’m not sure if a Mahler symphony could be rendered legibly on the screen.)

No IPad was needed for the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1. Applying a light and slightly détaché touch to the keyboard, Kahane interpreted this early work as looking backwards to Mozart rather than forward to Beethoven’s own later works. The cadenzas were stunning examples of virtuosity with substance. The first-movement cadenza was written by Beethoven, but the one in the last movement was Kahane’s transcription of Beethoven’s own cadenza. This was a masterly rendition that took some techniques from the early music stylebook but never sounded too small or thin. It would be hard to say in which capacity Kahane excelled more: a conductor and as a pianist he is altogether one great musician.

Stan Metzger