Paik, Bělohlávek polish Beethoven to a fine sheen with Philharmonic

Fri Dec 09, 2016 at 11:59 am
Kun Woo Paik made his New York Philharmonic debut Thursday night in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting. Photo: Chris Lee

Kun Woo Paik made his New York Philharmonic debut Thursday night in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting. Photo: Chris Lee

Thursday night, at age 70, the Seoul-born, Juilliard-trained, Paris-based pianist Kun Woo Paik made his first appearance with the New York Philharmonic in New York.  After his performance of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C minor, one could only hope for many more engagements.

Paik had performed once before with the orchestra on tour in Seoul. Piano fans knew of him through his recent recordings of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. Thursday’s live, unfiltered performance in David Geffen Hall proved that those masterful renderings on CD were no trick of the recording studio.

Nearly motionless on the piano bench, head bowed over his task, Paik placed a fluent technique totally at the service of the music, bringing each bar to vibrant life and linking them into long expressive shapes.

His playing was exemplary in the most literal sense: One wanted to bring every intermediate piano student into the hall and say, This is what Beethoven sounds like when you have it all together—no showing off, no exaggeration, just every note, phrase, and emphasis where it needs to be to make the whole building rise before your eyes. 

Can a soloist influence the way the orchestra plays? How else to explain the sonorous, architectural quality of the concerto’s long orchestral exposition, led by conductor Jiří Bělohlávek before the soloist entered? The orchestra’s broad phrasing, tonal balance, and unerring sense of direction mirrored those of the pianist, both in these opening pages and throughout the work.

This “middle child” of Beethoven’s five piano concertos looks backward and forward at the same time, toward the Classical models of the composer’s youth and the fist-shaking, heroic Beethoven to come. Thursday’s well-proportioned performance was a reminder of the younger Beethoven’s rivalry with the ghost of Mozart, especially in the concerto genre.

In fact, the unflappable poise of Paik’s playing, such an asset to most of the performance, became something of a liability in the first movement’s solo cadenza.  The rambunctious interlude that Beethoven jotted down for this concerto five years after composing it has, with thousands of subsequent performances, become as canonical as the rest of the score, and on Thursday this quasi-improvisation sounded just a bit too “composed,” in both senses of the word.

But this is a small cavil with one of the most compelling Beethoven performances of this or any season.  After it, the pianist was called back to the stage twice to acknowledge the ovation.

To open the program, Bělohlávek led a scintillating performance of the overture to From the House of the Dead, Janáček’s operatic adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s fictionalized prison memoir. 

Whether out of convenience or a desire to depict the individual against the system, Janáček adapted the overture from, of all things, a violin concerto he was working on, leaving in the fierce violin solos (brilliantly executed Thursday night by the orchestra’s principal associate concertmaster, Sheryl Staples).

Amid the screech of strings and the raw glare of brass, Bělohlávek delivered the distinctive Janáček style—seemingly prehistoric and modern at the same time—in all its stark glory. 

With two such idiomatic performances already on the table, one could hardly wait to hear Bělohlávek’s take on his countryman Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D major.  In the event, however, the apparently underrehearsed performance was riddled with faults of ensemble and balance, and so this charming amalgam of Brahmsian rigor and Czech high spirits never quite got off the ground, for all the conductor’s urgings.

The performance’s best moments came in the blossoming of Dvořák’s very un-Brahmsian Czech melodies in the first movement, some high-energy dancing in the “furiant”-style Scherzo, and the finale’s big, brassy windup, which sparked a storm of applause. Even the repeats sounded better than the first time around, a hopeful sign for improved performances this weekend.

Fortunately, this stumble with Dvořák at the end couldn’t dim the program’s finest hour, a Beethoven concerto performance to remember.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 212-875-5656.


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