A week after witnessing the New York Philharmonic perform a work by their composer-in-residence with their music director and artist-in-residence, I returned to watch them perform with a guest conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and a guest artist in his New York Philharmonic debut, Jeremy Denk. It was clear from the first few notes of Beethoven’s Overture to König Stephan that this new and less familiar dynamic actually would be much more invigorating. Mr Salonen brought a stunning range in dynamics and energy with his conducting. After last week’s bland and somewhat muddled Haydn, I was startled by the colors surging forth from the Philharmonic.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

Both the music and, in particular, the silences were more decisive throughout the Overture and the program as a whole. Mr Salonen places an emphasis on sharp, enunciated rests, where Alan Gilbert or others might hurry onwards. The rollicking, Hungarian-tinged themes of the Overture were accented with gaping and gasping silences that emphasized the theatrical nature of the piece.

Paired with the Overture was an earlier Beethoven work, the Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major, Op.15. Once again Mr Salonen’s command of the orchestra’s dynamics was impressive, with Jeremy Denk chiming in with splashes of his own unique palette. Mr Denk’s playing is simultaneously playful and thoughtful, as if his runs and chords are meant to carry on a continual conversation with Beethoven, sometimes bantering, sometimes dawdling. His interpretation of Beethoven’s cadenzas was surprising and almost frustrating; his fingers doodled out the notes and flitted from one mood to the next with a childlike proclivity for surprise and humor. Finally, after another wrenching pause from Mr Salonen, the orchestra would join in for the cadences.

There were moments when the orchestra was practically an extension of the piano and the piano sounded like an extension of the orchestra, glimpses into the rare outcome of a fruitful concerto collaboration. But for the most part it sounded almost like there were two different pieces being played at the same time, one by Mr Denk and one by Mr Salonen and the Philharmonic musicians. Though the first and third movement were awash in liveliness, and the delicate melodies of the second movement were pinched out with care and polish, there was generally too much of a disparity between Mr Salonen’s dramatic Beethoven and Mr Denk’s rambunctious Beethoven.

The mood returned to dramatic after intermission, when Mr Salonen led the Philharmonic in Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu (“The Firebird”). Stravinsky’s other works from this period of the 1910’s in Paris, such as Petrushka and Le sacre du printemps, are very much of the earth, but what I love about L’Oiseau de feu is how full of flight and fancy it is, flitting above the earth on the wings of woodwind phrases. It is always wonderful to be swept along from the almost menacing opening from the cellos and basses up to the brash, heavy ending (marked “molto pesante”).

Mr Salonen infused his rendition with air rather than fire. I’ve come to expect passion and urgency from performances of the complete ballet, but his splintering silences and startling dynamic shifts lent a unique tone to the work. The solos, particularly from violist Rebecca Young, were gorgeous. The tempo was indecisive at times, but was made up for by the quietest pianissimos and strongest fortissimos, as when the brass bellowed in reply to the strings’ whispers. Even within the final chord, the full spectrum of volume was explored, from the most hushed pianississimo to the most thunderous sforzando, as Mr Salonen exerted himself to the very last. Still, there was not enough intensity, overall, to sweep me away.