Forthright Viennese Classics from Jeffrey Kahane

United StatesUnited States Mozart and Haydn: Jeffrey Kahane (conductor and soloist), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 1.3.2012 (BJ)

When Seattle Opera is in session, the Seattle Symphony (which provides the company with its orchestra) takes the opportunity to program classical and earlier music that uses relatively small instrumental resources, so that its ranks may be divided without artistic damage. This time, in the orchestra’s “Mostly Mozart” series, the first and last of the composer’s B-flat-major piano concertos made an attractive sandwich, with Haydn’s fresh and tuneful Symphony No. 6, Le Matin, providing the filling.

The evening’s greatest music was the Concerto No. 27, K. 595. And the greatest performance of it that I can recall was given more than half a century ago, in January 1956, when London’s Royal Festival Hall was celebrating the Mozart bicentennial. In the last of a week of concerts, Clifford Curzon played the work with such surpassing inwardness and such arresting restraint and elegance that it has stayed vividly in my memory ever since.

There are, it may be said, two opposite approaches that a pianist can take to the performance of this utterly unshowy concerto. He can choose, even while proclaiming its inner strength, to emphasize the sheer quietness and subtlety on which that strength rests. Or he can opt to seize on the relatively few touches of rhetorical emphasis and make them instead the cornerstone of his interpretation.

Jeffrey Kahane, conducting in approved 18th-century fashion from the keyboard, tipped his hand – almost literally! – quite early in the opening orchestral ritornello: a quick flick of the wrist elicited from the strings’ momentary mezzo-forte a rapid accent of quite surprising force, and this did indeed turn out to be a clue to the nature of the performance as a whole. It is an eminently defensible view of the music, though not one that I share, and it presaged a reading distinguished by well-shaped playing from both soloist and orchestra.

Stylistic considerations were taken clearly into account, except at one point in the central Larghetto (in which, moreover, I thought Kahane’s chosen tempo was on the sluggish side). In the final statement of the movement’s main theme, scored by Mozart for piano, flute, and first violins, Kahane chose to turn the last-named part into a solo, and, as gracefully as Elisa Barston and flutist Zart Dombourian-Eby phrased their octave-unison line, the effect sounded to me a tad un-Mozartean.

Subtlety is not so evident in the much earlier Concerto No. 6, K. 238, and here there was little to cavil at in a solo-orchestral collaboration of welcome forthrightness and clarity. Kahane may perhaps not be the most poetic pianist in the world, but he is a fine musician with a strong technique and a gift for outgoing expressivity. Those qualities, equally in evidence in his direction of the Haydn symphony, assured the audience’s enjoyment of an unusually shaped yet thoroughly satisfying program.

Bernard Jacobson