2003 Season • Review
Pianist delivers a Beethoven bonanza
July 3, 2003
By Grant Menzies for The Register-Guard.
Performing an entire cycle of works by one composer can be gloriously enlightening, or a fatal flirtation with hubris.
The sheer stamina a musician needs to pursue a composer’s fugitive musical mind down paths that took years to create, and to do so in a matter of a few concert evenings, is gargantuan, to say the least. Taking on that composer’s thinking, while simultaneously making the music say something new, is also no job for the newbie performer.
Which is why, when it came to Tuesday night’s Oregon Bach Festival performance of not one, not two, but three of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concertos, it took not a bird, not a plane, not even Superman. It took Jeffrey Kahane, a diminutive pianist with the curls of a Greek hero, to carry it off.
Like his 32 piano sonatas, but on a far more compressed level, Beethoven’s five piano concertos follow a steady progression from the 18th century delicacies of No. 2 (which, although finalized in 1801, is actually the first of Beethoven’s numbered concertos) to the full-blown 19th century romanticisms of the sprawling No. 5, the “Emperor,” from 1809.
The three that Kahane tackled Tuesday night in Silva Concert Hall – Nos. 2, 3 and 4 – are especially grueling of an evening precisely because they cover such a broad range of Beethoven’s development, not just as a composer but as a profoundly philosophical musician and man. But Kahane gave ample proof not just of his stamina but also of his ability to bridge the two eras of Beethoven’s chronological and artistic life. He did this not only as a pianist but also as a conductor – a feat of Beethovian command if there ever was one.
Kahane the conductor shaped the festival orchestra with crisp, energetic gestures, balancing a sound that was suavely Mozartean yet splashed with the same richly colored, powerfully discursive textures that characterize his keyboard style.
Kahane is, above all, a communicator, and if it sometimes seems that he has so much to say that he’s at risk of twisting his fingers, I’ll take his exuberance and his heart-on-sleeve passion over reverent and risk-free any time.
Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2, with its overtones of Haydn and Mozart, is nothing but pure charm; in it, Beethoven out-bagatelles the bagatelle.
If the No. 2 is all about romping good fun, the No. 4 deals with the ups and downs of the wayward heart; here Kahane’s enthusiasm and generosity sketched an allegro first movement that fairly capered and an andante movement that glittered with a harp-like transparency.
With the Concerto No. 3, however, we enter the territory of the profound, perhaps the most profound region in piano concerto terms that Beethoven ever assayed. The No. 3 is all about mystery. It’s about what we don’t know but only intuit and dream. It’s riddled with guesses about the universe in general and the soul of man in particular.
Its key of C minor, strangely glinting through shadow, is part of this. Mostly it’s the genius of its composer. And in the hands of a genius like Kahane, all the cold truths and star-gazing ponderings of this cerebral masterpiece were vividly revealed.
I have never heard a piano whisper – I certainly never thought I would hear a 10-foot long, four-pedal Fazioli concert grand do so – but when Kahane offered up the first few phrases of the adagio second movement like so much incense, shared emotion swept across the audience like a wind.
In the jaunty third movement, where Beethoven seems to say, “I’ve asked for the true meaning of life and received no answer, and now I wonder whether it even matters,” Kahane used his crunchy muscularity and iridescent brilliance to reply, “Nope, it doesn’t matter in the least.”
Kahane will play Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 5 at 8 p.m. today in the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall.
Grant Menzies is classical music critic for Willamette Week in Portland.
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