At the Philharmonic, last week and this, the light of reason shines bright. No brutality sullies the sonority. Trombones, tubas and triangles are furloughed for the moment; pairs of woodwinds and brass, a solitary drummer, and a reduced string contingent suffice. The young Joseph Haydn, joyous in the new job that will support him for a lifetime, plays at inventing the symphony. The unruly Beethoven breathes his own brand of fire into five stupendous, dissimilar ventures in the fashioning of piano concertos; against the baby steps of the young Haydn, they seem even taller than usual.
Cut down to classical-era size, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Philharmonic plays with exquisite clarity and lets us hear all kinds of new things. As he often does in this repertory, Salonen wisely reseats the orchestra, with the second violins to his right, to equalize the give-and-take among the string players; it makes a difference. Does anyone bother to notice Beethoven’s sublime scoring, for solo winds, clarinet and bassoon especially, in the slow movements of these concertos? Pianist Mitsuko Uchida is the perfect companion in the Beethoven, to hear and to see. Nobody, of any gender you can name, looks more alluring in pants than she.
I’m reporting on the first two events. If we all move fast enough, we can make the third together; it includes the "Emperor" Concerto. It was a rash and enterprising notion on Salonen’s part, to plan three subscription programs in basically the same orchestral language. Ordinary philosophy ordains that a Beethoven piano concerto should be washed down with, perhaps, a Strauss tone poem. By acting otherwise, both Salonen and Uchida make everything on all three concerts sound like the evening’s highlight.
And indeed, everything is. Haydn’s history is well enough known: how, at 28, he fell into the Kapellmeister’s job at the Esterházy premises, which he proceeded to embellish lavishly with a voluminous repertory of chamber music, symphonies and every etcetera in the book for the rest of a long and honorable life — pausing along the way to offer valuable support to the upcoming Mozart and Beethoven. It would serve no purpose to claim every work from his prodigal pen a distinctive masterwork; enough of them, however, came close.
The three symphonies that turn up on the current Philharmonic series are the first works Haydn composed for the Esterházy family, and for first flights they soar remarkably high. For one thing, they demonstrate the political skills that any ambitious composer today might well study; to ingratiate himself with his newly acquired orchestra, for example, Haydn sprinkled his three symphonies with lots of solos for the leading players: flute, violins, even the double bass. Number 7, the second of the three, is a particularly endearing hullabaloo, with horns a-howling and one whole movement given over to a mock-operatic scene, a wordless but potent argument among flutes, violin and cello.
Beyond this, there is an assuredness in the melodic writing, even in these journeyman works, that some of Haydn’s lesser contemporaries — Signor Boccherini, for example — seldom if ever achieved. Musical scholars tend to hold up Haydn’s career — the steady rise of his fortunes, his exemplary honesty in the musical world (no less booby-trapped then than now) and the quality of his legacy — as one of music’s few genuinely happy tales. These early symphonies, which Salonen’s modest orchestral forces shaped and delivered with high imagination and wit, show that the story was already under way in 1760.
The year was, I think, 1987; a pianist unfamiliar to me was playing Mozart concertos at Ambassador, and I let myself be dragged along under some protest. I have worshipped at the altar of Mitsuko Uchida ever since. My Uchida treasures include the complete sonatas in the Philips Mozart Bicentennial series; a laserdisc that cries out for DVD reissue, in which Uchida talks through the piano etudes of Debussy and then performs them; the Schubert G-major Sonata, which brings on tears just by thinking about it; Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with Boulez conducting, wherein heart and brains — if you’ll pardon the anatomy — go hand in hand.
The spirit of this woman accompanies her from her first moment onstage, a rhapsody of swirling fabric (silk, I guess, but what do I know?) that settles weightless around her as she plays. I’ve never cared all that much for the Beethoven Second Concerto, but now I know what it looks like in the person of Uchida’s performance — gossamer intertwined — and that will help. One moment, the soft question-and-answer between pianist and orchestra that serves as a kind of cadenza to the slow movement, simply stopped my breath. Why have I never noticed it before?
It was in the Third Piano Concerto, which began the second of the three nights, that the Uchida magic was fully engaged — more so, to my taste, than in the concluding Fourth Concerto, which is generally accorded higher grade points on the Beethoven report card and in which, by a margin measurable only with the most exacting microscopes, I found Uchida somewhat uninvolved this time around.