Conductor: Sir Roger Norrington
Haydn: Symphony No 39 in G Minor, Hob. I:39
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 1 in C Major, Op. 15 – Jeremy Denk
Mozart: Symphony No 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543
Although I occasionally try to make a point of opening my mind and ears to new musical endeavors, there is no way I could resist a program presenting masterpieces of Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart, performed by the uniformly excellent Orchestra of St Luke’s, conducted by their first music director from about two decades ago, the venerable Sir Roger Norrington, and featuring the fearless pianist Jeremy Denk. I frankly couldn’t imagine better musicians than these tremendously talented artists to breathe new life in those timeless, yes, but also repeatedly heard, works by the three interconnected masters of the Viennese Classical era. So after an awesome recital by Leif Ove Andsnes on Wednesday night, I was back in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium on Thursday night for musical highs of a different kind, but just as promising.
Although I generally love the Classical composers almost as much as the Romantic ones, I have never unconditionally warmed up to Haydn. Deep respect, sure. Love, not so much. I did, however, very much enjoy the decision of maestro Norrington and the orchestra to boldly bring out the contrasts of Haydn’s 39th symphony for a rich, full-bodied sound.
Maybe to emphasize the influence of the two older composers on their younger, ground-breaking colleague, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1 – which is actually the second one he wrote – was book-ended by Haydn and Mozart in the program. But even more telling of the endeavor’s innovative nature was the shape of the stage, with the piano facing the audience, the pianist turning his back to us and the conductor facing him from the other side of the instrument. Even before the piano entrance, Jeremy Denk was already mimicking playing it, as if he just couldn’t wait to get started. When his turn finally came, the air filled up with so much refreshing inventiveness that it was hard to believe this concerto first came out over two centuries ago. The eventful first movement, including the long cadenza, was so impressive that its conclusion prompted Sir Norrington himself to spontaneously sit down and applaud, quickly imitated by a temporarily unsure but genuinely appreciative audience. The remaining of the piece was just as full of vitality and expressiveness, a perfect example of the value of teamwork.
Then we were on to one of the pillars of classical music with Mozart’s Symphony No 39. And for the third time that evening, Sir Norrington conducted sans podium, baton or score, but with an ever-present, if relaxed, authority. This 39 was a free-flowing river of attractive melodies and robust lyricism, a beautifully nuanced performance which can rightly claim a prime spot on my list of grand Mozart experiences.