Fun and Sobriety in a Dream Program

 United StatesUnited States  Bartók, Beethoven, Haydn, and Johann Strauss, Jr.: Jeffrey Kahane (piano), Oregon Symphony,Carlos Kalmar (conductor), Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, OR, 28.9.2013 (BJ)

Bartók: Dance Suite
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor
Haydn: Symphony No. 64 in A major
Johann Strauss, Jr.: Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald

Preceded by the conductor’s admirably clear and entertaining spoken introduction, this was a concert that had pretty well everything going for it: plenty of fun at the beginning and end, with the ballast of more serious rewards in the middle.

No. 3 in C minor is the darkest-toned of Beethoven’s piano concertos, and it received an appropriately searching and dramatic performance from soloist Jeffrey Kahane and the Oregon Symphony under Carlos Kalmar, now in his eleventh season as music director. It was particularly pleasing to hear the first movement phrased properly in alla breve meter, rather than the 4/4 that still, in some performances, survives from inaccurate old editions. The little 8th-note in the second measure is no different in mere duration between the one time-signature and the other, but it should feel different, and it clearly did so in this account. Kahane delivered both the élan of the outer movements and the meditative gravity of the central Largo comprehensively, and rewarded the ovation that followed with a mellifluously played Mendelssohn Song without Words.

If the Beethoven was the most substantial work on the program, Haydn’s Symphony No. 64 offered no less pleasure and indeed enlightenment—I was, probably in common with many members of the audience, hearing it for the first time. Carrying a subtitle, “Tempora mutantur” (“Times Change”), whose significance for the piece is unexplained, it provides exemplary refutation for any idea that Haydn’s huge output is repetitive. It sounds like no other Haydn symphony I am acquainted with.

Conducting just for this work without baton, Kalmar drew infectious zest from the slashing chords and repeated-note figures of the first movement, nicely described by the late Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon as “one of those ‘phrenzied’ pieces of music, sensitive and nervous as a thoroughbred always is, which are so peculiarly Haydnish.” The bouncy minuet, with horns and oboes singing their parts sweetly in the trio, and the ingeniously designed final rondo were equally well done. But it was the slow movement—unusually for Haydn marked “Largo,” richly expressive, and compellingly grave in utterance—that made the most extraordinary impact.

It’s good to know that the performance was being recorded for commercial CD release. I was slightly disappointed by the non-observance of several repeats, and surprised by the absence of a keyboard continuo, though it was a good idea to secrete the continuo bassoonist in the midst of the cellos and basses, but musicality never flagged in this highly persuasive performance.

Bartók is not always a composer to be relied on for pure entertainment, but the reading of his Dance Suite that had begun the evening aptly stressed the significance of the title’s first word by keeping textures light and rhythms pointed. And the program ended, officially, with an irresistibly idiomatic performance of Johann Strauss’s Tales from the Vienna Woods.

Kalmar, who combines a lucid stick technique with a balletic exuberance that never becomes distracting, made a hugely entertaining effect with a rhetorical hesitation at the top of the main tune’s first phrases, and then showed the good sense to moderate the touch at later repetitions to avoid any hint of boredom. Again, a warm ovation called for an encore, which came in the shape of the same composer’s Leichtes Blut polka. It sent the audience home happy, in a performance that Kalmar scarcely needed to conduct, so obviously is his orchestra in harmony with his slightest gesture.

Bernard Jacobson