United States Prokofiev, Haydn, and Mozart: Marcelo Lehninger (conductor), Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 23.1.2014 (BJ)
Prokofiev: Classical Symphony
Haydn: Piano Concerto in D major, H. XVIII:11
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-flat major for the left hand, Op. 53
Mozart: Symphony No. 35 in D major, K. 385, “Haffner”
It was a pleasure to welcome a conductor and a soloist who were both making Seattle Symphony debuts on this occasion, and who together fashioned performances of considerable merit.
The young Brazilian-born Marcelo Lehninger, still in his early thirties, is a conductor I hadn’t encountered before. French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, on the other hand, I have admired since hearing the disc of Haydn sonatas he made in 1991, at a slightly younger age.
He has since followed that isolated issue with an extended series of recordings devoted to Haydn’s sonatas, and his dedication to the composer’s music was evident not merely in his choice of a Haydn concerto for his first appearance with the orchestra, but also in the blend of stylistic authority and freshness of expression that he brought to its performance. Though not the instinctive master of the concerto form that Mozart was, Haydn produced a handful of attractive works in the genre, and the D-major keyboard concerto may well be the best one.
Bavouzet’s crisp and neatly nuanced treatment of the solo part was backed up punctiliously under Lehninger’s clear baton by a Seattle Symphony that seemed in excellent shape, despite the unusually large contingent of deputy and guest musicians occupying first chairs in the absence of principals who were presumably away on opera duty.
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 4, which followed after intermission, is a more ambitiously scored but musically less rewarding work. Much of it follows the pattern endemic to his piano concertos: fairly purposeless dashing up and down the keyboard, somewhat in the manner of the grand old Duke of York in the English nursery rhyme, who “had ten thousand men;/He marched them up the hill,/And he marched them down again.” Playing with only his left hand—the work was written, like the great one by Ravel, for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I—Bavouzet accomplished prodigies of prestidigitation in the opening Vivace. There are some beguiling ghostly moments in the intermezzo-style third movement, which comes closest of the four to achieving any degree of subtlety. The tiny finale, merely an abbreviated recap of the first movement, might best be described as good-humored trash—and Bavouzet, who has a charmingly genial stage presence, made the most of the good humor.
The two concertos were book-ended by a pair of symphonies, one of them a fake classic and the other a genuine one. Explaining his aim in writing his first symphony, subtitled “Classical Symphony,” Prokofiev theorized that “if Haydn had lived into our age, he would have preserved his own way of composing and, at the same time, absorbed something from the new music. That was the kind of symphony I wanted to write.” The work received a fine performance. Lehninger captured well the “eleganza” the score demands in the first movement, and drew some admirable pianissimo playing from the orchestra.
His performance of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony likewise had many virtues. The tricky opening theme was thrown off with nice insouciance, and the finale went at the breakneck pace Mozart wanted. Less stylish were a lugubrious tempo for the Andante, the omission of some repeats here and in the da capo of the minuet, and occasional heavy textures, whether due to the use of a surprisingly large string body, or to letting the trumpets and horns maintain full tone in tutti chords instead of fining them down idiomatically. But the wit he found in the music, and again some impressively soft dynamics, proclaimed Lehninger a conductor of considerable talent.
A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.