Review: A Nostalgia Trip at the New York Philharmonic

Posted January 5, 2018 7:22 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — When accomplished performers bring years of dedication to classic works, it can feel ungrateful to ask for more. Yet I couldn’t help wanting more Thursday evening, when pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane led the New York Philharmonic in Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Haydn at David Geffen Hall. While the program was finely executed, it felt safe and predictable, a nostalgia trip to 18th-century Vienna, with a latter-day homage to that era by Tchaikovsky tossed in.

It was all excellently done. Though the dynamic cellist Alicia Weilerstein first played Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations with the Cleveland Orchestra over two decades ago, when she was 13, her performance here had engaging spontaneity and freedom. She brought plenty of grace to the piece’s evocations of rococo style. But during the virtuosic variations, especially the breathless coda, Weilerstein’s playing had incisive attack, manic energy, and, when called for, rough, bristling tone.

Kahane, who stepped down last year after 20 years leading the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, brought sprightly vitality and crisp articulation to Mozart’s Concerto No. 17 in G (K. 453), which he led from the keyboard. He conducted Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 in B flat from a fortepiano, while supplying (sparingly) a continuo backing of chords and occasional runs. This was a nod to its composer, who led the 1792 premiere in London from the fortepiano.

By now, concertgoers may assume that Haydn’s “London” Symphonies (the last 12 of his numbered 104) are all standard repertory works. Yet before Thursday performance of the Symphony No. 98, the Philharmonic had not played this remarkable masterpiece in over 17 years, when Colin Davis conducted it. For all its surface charms, this is an audacious, almost slyly radical work.

But this performance, though spirited, did not sufficiently bring out the music’s boldness for me. I’m not suggesting that Kahane and the players should have exaggerated for effect. But it’s hard to make the symphony’s originality stand out when you group it with one of Mozart’s most frequently-played concertos and a Tchaikovsky staple.

There are other programming options. During his early years at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen did a series of concerts pairing Haydn symphonies with works by another Hungarian giant, Ligeti. (Salonen brought this idea to New York in his Hungarian Echoes festival in 2011.) Simply by juxtaposing these composers, separated by two centuries, their shared qualities of stunning inventiveness and unbridled humor came through.

New York Philharmonic

This program continues through Tuesday at David Geffen Hall, New York City; 212-875-5656, nyphil.org.