This program is repeated Sunday at 2 p.m. Information here.
Although orchestra programs are set years in advance, they sometimes presage events in a way that makes them strangely relevant by the time they reach the stage. Rudolf Buchbinder’s Verizon Hall appearance Friday night with the Philadelphia Orchestra coming so soon after Wolfgang Sawallisch’s death brought symbolic as well as practical implications. The Viennese pianist was a close Sawallisch associate, and after the conductor was too ill to return to fulfill his laureate duties, Buchbinder would arrive here as soloist with the maestro’s greeting in hand.
Buchbinder this time brought added artistic assent. The two shared musical elegance and a penetrating understanding of the composer’s intent. With the added podium authority of Christoph von Dohnányi – he having arrived at 83 handsome and nimble – Friday night was about as close as any will ever get again to a Sawallisch-esque experience.
Not that the orchestra itself sounded like his. Dohnányi brought out high-contrast shaded colors in Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music (yes, this piece too was decided on long ago). Waxing and waning, threaded with tritones (a musical interval precisely, if unsettlingly, halfway between the octave), the piece memorializes Bartók without imitating him. It was a smart way to pay homage to the orchestra’s strings, especially at a climactic moment of great color: like a genie rushing back into his lamp, a cluttered divided part gathers chaotic energy before gathering into a terrific unison.
Dohnányi likes to keep his ensemble lean, a core philosophy that suited Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466 – the dark D Minor. With a transparent sound and soft attacks, Dohnányi’s accompaniment left open an ample canvas for Buchbinder. And what colors. In tasteful, crisply articulated gestures, the pianist used only the slightest flexibility in tempo, and the slightest was all he needed to make his points. He stretched a bit more in a piano-only section of the second movement, but here he made an important point – that no matter how much you veer, the inner beat should always be discernable. When Dohnányi looked back at Buchbinder after the third-movement cadenza, presumably to check in about tempo, the pianist looked as delighted a birthday boy.
If Dohnányi and Sawallisch shared anything as musicians, it is surely a certain appreciation for holding drama in reserve. These qualities informed every inch of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica,” whose first movement Dohnányi approached as a powerful, closely regulated engine. The famous moment of great dissonance arrived with no special announcement; its radicalism spoke for itself. The second movement, “Marcia Funebre,” was built of the same inevitability contained in all of the conductor’s work, which, in the ears of at least one listener mulling the full meaning of Sawallisch, echoes still now and still strongly.