Haydn Makes an Unlikely Star in a Salute to the British Isles

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra / Fabio Luisi (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 26.1.2018 (BJ)

Haydn – Symphony No.104 in D major Hob.1:104, “London”
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor Op.37
Wagner – Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

Quite aside from being performed back to front, this was a rather strange program with which to conclude the Philadelphia Orchestra’s three-week ‘British Isles Festival’. Treating Tristan und Isolde as the afternoon’s representation of Ireland was an odd enough touch, and the inclusion of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto was even more far-fetched in the context. The one piece that indubitably belonged in its place was Haydn’s Symphony No.104, and though I would rather have ended the afternoon with this great work, the performance that guest conductor Fabio Luisi fashioned certainly set the program on its course with admirable elan.

‘Elan’ was, indeed, a quality that Luisi’s ‘historically informed’ tempo for the minuet possessed almost to excess: the main section dashed past at a thorough-going scherzo clip—but then the conductor pulled back the pace and treated us to a luxuriantly caressing account of the trio section, which worked particularly well because of the vivid contrast with what surrounded it. The entire work benefitted from Luisi’s care for crisp accents, and there was some lovely orchestral playing at all dynamic levels, including David Cramer’s wondrous treatment of the heart-stopping flute passage near the end of the slow movement—another glory moment for the instrument, coming so soon after his colleague Jeffrey Khaner’s magisterial premiere of Samuel Jones’s splendid new concerto (which Pablo Heras-Casado conducted in January).

I was less impressed after intermission by Luisi’s conception of the opening movement of the Beethoven concerto, which he phrased at a very emphatic four beats to the measure, whereas the score proposes a more flowing alla breve time signature. Here, however, Yefim Bronfman’s playing of the solo part constituted perhaps the finest performance I can remember hearing from this pianist: his technical prowess is not always matched in the expressive sphere, but this time everything fitted together to compelling and often eloquent effect.

Some superb contributions from the horn section added tonal allure to the concluding performance of the Wagner excerpt. (A concert I heard in London years ago, at which audience members were invited to identify ‘deliberate mistakes’, offered what the program book listed as ‘a performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, inadvertently omitting the intervening opera.’) The music, and the work’s depressingly Teutonic insistence on the melding of love and death, are not exactly my goblet of mead, but Luisi was emphatically in the vein, and the physical freedom of his beat drew a suitably flexible and sumptuous response from the orchestra.

Bernard Jacobson

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