Mesmerizing Mozart

Times Staff Writer

Ideal, definitive, perfect: These are words one should never use in a music review. So let "fully realized" describe Jeffrey Kahane's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 as he led the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard Sunday at Royce Hall.

Kahane and the orchestra were completing their survey of the Salzburg master's 23 original piano concertos, begun in the 250th anniversary year of 2006.

Intended to span a 15-month period and end last March, the immense project had to be extended because Kahane's doctor determined at that time that he had severe hypertension and needed time off.

He came roaring back Sunday to play and conduct Concertos Nos. 8, 20, 14 and 27, in that order, on the Royce stage.

There are those who say Mozart didn't know that No. 27, or K. 595, was going to be his last and that he would be dead at 35 before the year -- 1791 -- was out. They say that others read autumnal, farewell-to-life meanings into the piece that weren't intended.

Maybe so. But who would deny that this concerto inhabits a special world which, as Kahane remarked from the stage, is sublime?

To point the audience to that world, soprano Elissa Johnston made a surprise appearance to sing Mozart's "Komm, lieber Mai" (Come, sweet May), K. 596,. (Note the conjunction of the Kochel numbers.) It is a child's song as radiant as any Mahler used for similar purposes in a symphony, and it serves as the theme of the concerto's last movement. Kahane was her sensitive accompanist.

Kahane played the concerto with purity, gentleness and simplicity -- and with an exposed vulnerability that he had kept under wraps elsewhere in the program.

There were throat-catching moments in the first movement, touching beauty throughout the second and innocent joy in the last.

The orchestra's collaboration was, well, perfect.

In the D-minor Concerto (No. 20), which came just before intermission, Kahane the conductor vied with Kahane the soloist for supremacy, and may have triumphed.

It's all too easy to forget how good a conductor Kahane is. He made the opening orchestral section so grippingly tense and dramatic that it seemed as if the cosmic struggle in "Don Giovanni" was being compacted into just a few minutes. The pianist did not attempt to compete with that storm.

Here, as in the other concertos, Kahane was generous to the orchestra, never setting himself too much apart from it in terms of phrasing, flexibility of tempo or nuances of interpretation, however fluent and seemingly effortless his playing.

It was in the cadenzas (his own in No. 8, Beethoven's in No. 20 and Mozart's in the remaining two) that he saw fit to stand out. Some listeners would have wished for more such moments.

The orchestra played with transparency, balance, vigor and grace.

The winds were especially important in Concerto No. 27, and concertmaster Margaret Batjer contributed memorable poignancy at the end of its slow movement.

The concert ended appropriately with an outburst of applause for Kahane and his band.

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