A Fine Evening of Beethoven at Lincoln Center

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 21:  A general view of atmosphere during the Opening Night Gala of New York Philharmonic sponsored b
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 21: A general view of atmosphere during the Opening Night Gala of New York Philharmonic sponsored by Breguet at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on September 21, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The Swatch Group)

The New York Philharmonic is a strange creature. Often it is good but a bit bland. Sometimes it's downright boring. And sometimes it makes you sit up in your seat and think what a historical and good orchestra this is.

I was fortunate enough to be at Lincoln Center last week on Jan. 31 to hear a performance that definitely belonged to the last category. German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi (his not very German surname points to his Hungarian roots) stood at the podium to conduct an all-Beethoven evening, with Radu Lupu as the soloist for the Piano Concerto No. 1 -- the same Radu Lupu who had yours truly mesmerized at Carnegie Hall the week before.

Dohnányi has a long and illustrious past (including two decades at the helm of the Cleveland Orchestra, from 1982 to 2002) but that's not necessarily an indication of how good a conductor is. I was a little surprised that the octogenarian Dohnányi (who will be 84 this year) was still equipped with far more control over the orchestra than many of his younger peers are.

The concert got off to a good start with the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. The New York Phil played with reassuring finesse, guided by Dohnányi, who got a very good response from the ensemble with minimal effort. It's very exciting and all to see an impassioned young man wearing his heart on his sleeve and waving his arms about, but when you see someone like Dohnányi getting really good results without all those intense and dramatic movements, you start to appreciate the finer points of the art of conducting.

For the concerto, Lupu appeared on stage, and instead of making a little bow to the orchestra as almost all soloists do, he nonchalantly saluted them as he ambled towards the piano. He was as at home in Lincoln Center as he had been at Carnegie Hall, sitting back in his chair and listening to the orchestra play the exposition before his entrance with seemingly as much enjoyment and curiosity as the audience.

He played with a light touch, getting the much-desired "pearls on velvet" effect -- a flawless succession of finely rendered passages, each note distinct and even. The modulations in the development section were exquisite, each new tonality a different color from the previous and both unexpected and complimentary at the same time. Lupu played as unassumingly as usual, rarely going above a forte. This usually results in a faded and patchy accompaniment from the orchestra as it tries to keep its volume low so that the soloist won't be drowned out in sound, but Dohnányi is a conductor of rare refinement - he got the orchestra to match Lupu's sound so well that they didn't even sound as if they had to make an effort.

Classical music (classical as in the period, not genre) is often characterized by a certain amount of restraint -- anything too overtly emotional is considered romantic and not in very good taste. Yet Lupu's playing had no sign of restraint -- and yet it did not sound florid. He was expressive and full of richness, as he should be -- I believe much of the notion that classical music is more austere comes from the fact that the instruments of those days didn't have the sonorous capabilities of modern instruments. The hammerklavier, for example, was much more limited in its range of dynamics. That said, it would be wrong to assume that classical music is less expressive than music from the romantic period -- as wrong as it would be to say that a black and white photo is less expressive or less moving than a color photo. It depends on the photo, not whether it's black and white or not. Within certain limits, one can be as expressive as one wants without incurring the criticism of being soppy. I feel a lot of pianists make the mistake of focusing on the black and white aspect of classical music, thereby limiting themselves. Lupu's playing was richly sonorous, even buttery, and he shows us that you can be as free as you wish, that anything is possible, even while remaining within the borders of the classical era.

The third and last movement was peppery and lively, and the pianists and the orchestra made a very organic combo, something that is far more rare than it should be. All in all, the performance left nothing to be desired; I could have gone home happy then and there.

After the intermission, Dohnányi picked up again with the Fifth Symphony. The tempo (in all the movements) was quite fast, but he gave a very crisp, clean yet full and very satisfying interpretation of the famous work. This was the NY Phil at its best. The orchestra is one of the finest in the world, but unlike some of the even better ones (such as the Berlin Philharmonic) it still depends heavily on who is standing on the podium -- which is a good thing, I believe. It's great for an orchestra to be so good and independent, but it's more interesting to see the different combinations with different conductors. The NY Phil is not an automatically excellent orchestra, I have seen some rather lackluster performances in the past and I have seen some quite good ones -- but this Beethoven with Dohnányi was probably the best I've seen this season so far. While Dohnányi did not have the boisterous joyousness of a younger conductor (such as Gustavo Dudamel or Andrea Battistoni) in the last movement, the audience still went home very satisfied and happy.