Zacharias marks the passing of an era

Special to The Times

In the context of a Los Angeles Philharmonic season loaded with unusual programming, pianist-conductor Christian Zacharias’ journey through the Classical era at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night might have seemed like an intermezzo of the tried and true.

But tried and true did not mean business as usual in this case, for there was a nicely conceived story line driving the program.

Zacharias started out with one of the nine “Berlin” symphonies of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach -- the E-flat opus numbered Wq. 179, which was new to the Philharmonic.


Only 12 minutes long, the piece is interesting primarily because it is one of the earliest symphonies ever written, dating from around the time (c. 1760) that Haydn, the so-called father of the symphony, started writing his first symphonies. It is also a neatly positioned transition piece straddling the Baroque and Classical eras -- staying with the Baroque three-movement fast-slow-fast scheme, getting rid of the counterpoint and paring down the rhetoric to the simplest terms while anticipating some of Haydn’s strange, humorous pauses for effect.

So there was the beginning of the Classical symphony, and the concert concluded with Haydn’s final symphonic statement, the Symphony No. 104 (“London”), which represented the end of that line, almost a farewell signpost for the 18th century. Or at least that’s the way Zacharias chose to interpret it, playing up the portentous aspects of the introduction and taking somewhat slower tempos than usual in the first three movements before letting the finale rip, pulling a full, grandiose, rich sound from the reduced cadre of players from the Philharmonic.

If Haydn was saying goodbye, Zacharias had Beethoven precede him by barging in proclaiming, “Here I am!” with one of his earliest Major Statements, the Piano Concerto No. 2, written before his designated No. 1 and within a year of Haydn’s 104. Yes, another transition piece -- from the Classical to the Romantic.

Zacharias led the work from a lidless piano, and his playing was firm in rhythm and cleanly articulated, easily heard through the ensemble even when he was playing softly. His only interpretive quirks came in the Rondo, where the first two passes of the theme found him overwhelming the tune in the right hand with the left-hand countermelody, while the third pass was voiced in an entirely different, almost reticent fashion.

All night long, Zacharias drew robust, solid-edged playing from the Philharmonic, a big-orchestra sound from a medium-size group. He did so in unorthodox fashion -- tossing his torso about, bringing arms up from waist level, the beat a sometime thing. It was hard to see how the musicians could follow him. Yet they did -- splendidly.