Live Music: Jeffrey Kahane plays and conducts Beehoven’s piano concertos

BeethovenMy mom is here visiting, and to mark the occasion Dad has procured tickets for all of us to this Colorado Symphony Orchestra season finalé. The CSO director Jeffrey Kahane has been gone for months to recover from a serious case of hypertension, but he has returned for this performance. We’ve missed him, and feel genuinely happy to see him when he strides onto the stage. Over the course of the next two nights he will conduct and play all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos. I don’t know how often this is done, but it is a feat such as I’ve never witnessed before, and provides a feel of historical significance to our small family gathering.

Concerto no. 2 is first, opening with an uplifting orchestral theme which Jeffrey conducts standing at a Steinway with the cover removed so the orchestra can see him. When the piano part comes in he flips his coattails up, sits down, and seems to dive effortlessly into the task of playing, conducting, and turning pages of the giant score that sits on the piano. His hands never cease moving. I’m especially moved by the solo during the first movement, a lilting contrast of timing and melody with both hands playing very different parts. It contrasts with the rigid structure of the rest of the piece, hinting at a freedom of expression that Debussy would later explore. After hearing all five, I choose this concerto as my favorite.

No. 3 impresses me with the way a boiling, dark undercurrent rises and falls in the background, occasionally erupting, but never fully taking over. This is the only concerto in a minor key, C minor, a key that Beethoven gave a reputation for turgid power.

With Concerto no. 4 I realize just how firmly structured these pieces are. Each has three movements with a broad introduction and piano solo in the first, a more contemplative second, and brisk, definitive third. The structures are not that interesting in themselves, but the huge variation in my reaction to them is fascinating. The structure can be used to set up an expectation in me that evokes a strong reaction when it is not met.

We leave amazed and a little exhausted by the performance to spend a gorgeous night under the moon and stars in Dad’s yard.

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