United States Vaughan Williams, Mozart, and Elgar: Jeffrey Kahane (piano), Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar (conductor), Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, OR, 18.2.2012 (BJ)
It would take some ingenuity to devise a program more appealing to my personal tastes than the one music director Carlos Kalmar offered with his Oregon Symphony on 18 February: my favorite Vaughan Williams symphony – No. 5 in D major; my favorite Mozart piano concerto – No. 25 in C major, K. 503; and the exhilarating Cockaigne Overture by Elgar, one of my favorite composers.
Happily, the reality of the concert lived up almost perfectly to the expectations aroused by this bill of musical fare. Portland is fortunate in the possession of Maestro Kalmar, now in his ninth season with the orchestra, and fresh from what is reported to have been a major triumph in their debut appearance together at Carnegie Hall. A Portland performance of the same program was subsequently released on the PentaTone label.
On that occasion Kalmar, who seems to have a special fondness for English music, performed Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, the 1934 composition so aggressively violent in tone that the composer himself said of it, “ I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant.” When No. 5 appeared in 1943, its utterly different atmosphere of mystical lyricism was greeted as a benison by an English public stressed by the darkest stages of World War II.
This Oregon Symphony account of the work challenged comparison with some of the finest I have ever heard, which include the composer’s own 1952 performance, and – surprisingly from a conductor I should not have thought particularly well attuned to this brand of rapturous meditation – one given some years later by Lorin Maazel. Kalmar clearly had the full range of the work within his sights. Perhaps the first movement’s E-major second theme did not emerge as gloriously from the preceding C-minor shadows as it can. But that was the only slight disappointment in a reading that realized all the combined gentleness and strength of the visionary score, while giving welcome play to the scherzo’s quirky interjections by trombones and timpani. Kyle Mustain provided a beautiful English horn solo in the slow movement, and the concluding Passacaglia was shaped to eloquent effect.
Trombones and timpani, and indeed the whole of the brass and percussion sections, had a delightfully rumbustious field day in Elgar’s affectionate portrait of “London Town,” and the juxtaposition of so extrovert a work with Mozart served to demonstrate how comprehensive a variety of expressive modes the conductor and his orchestra are masters of. They supported soloist Jeffrey Kahane impeccably, and he displayed a touch at once firm and delicate. I found his tempo for the first movement – I assume, allowing for proper concerto protocol, that the choice was his – a shade brisk for Mozart’s “Allegro maestoso” marking. Pianist, conductor, and orchestra nevertheless succeeded in making the movement work a treat, and their poised handling of the Andante and finale completed a deeply satisfying unfolding of one of the composer’s most complex and subtle concerto structures.