It was a quiet celebration – not uproarious, but contemplative – that Jeffrey Kahane and friends enjoyed on Tuesday night at Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles. Celebrating the 15th anniversary of the partnership between the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Kahane, the concert had Kahane stepping away from the conductor’s rostrum, instead shining the spotlight on Kahane the pianist.

Jeffrey Kahane
Jeffrey Kahane

Promotional material ahead of the concert referred to Kahane as “one of the great pianistic talents of our time.” Though it would be tempting to write this off as yet another example of classical music marketing hyperbole, the use of “great” in reference to Kahane is well deserved. His performance with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra earlier this season of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and the slow movement from Ravel’s Concerto in G was evidence enough that Kahane occupies an exalted position among living pianists.

It’s rare to hear a pianist that doesn’t feel the need to overwhelm the listener by pummeling them with brilliance and speed in an overbearing flexing of muscles. Kahane is better than that. Technical brilliance he most certainly has. But he keeps it in careful reserve, calculating the use of power for maximum effect. Moreover he holds at his fingertips a dazzling array of colors, especially telling in his pianissimi. His superb sense of legato phrasing and weighting of chords are used with an eloquence that eludes many better known pianists.

His opening alone, J.S. Bach’s French Suite no. 5, was a veritable masterclass of voicing, judicious use of pedal, and tasteful ornamentation. What was most striking, however, was Kahane’s unabashedly Romantic vision of the suite. His Allemande immediately seduced the ear with its unhurried (though never slack) tempo and beautifully gradated dynamics; crisp rhythms marked the closing Gigue without ever sounding clattery. There was no attempt on Kahane’s part to make his piano mimic the sound of the Baroque harpsichord nor adhere to puritanical notions of period performance – and Bach shone ever brighter for it.

An interlude followed by way of Kahane’s son, Gabriel. Gabriel Kahane’s Django: Tiny Variations on a Big Dog was composed on request from his father and was a playful tribute to the Kahane family’s literary-minded dog. It channeled some of the spirit of György Ligeti in its use of complex polymeters, though the spirit of Hindemith also peeked out in the closing ragtime-like variation. Comprising of a handful of variations lasting just under five minutes, Gabriel Kahane’s Django was a miniature gem of aphoristic style and droll wit.

Chopin’s music concluded the first half of the program: a selection of three mazurkas, the Barcarolle, and his late Polonaise-Fantasie. Where Romantic warmth and emotion marked Kahane’s Bach, it was classical poise that informed his playing of Chopin. Rubati were telling, but subtly employed, allowing the music’s bel canto lyricism to stand out in greater relief. His playing of the Barcarolle was utterly ravishing, carrying the listener aloft on sweetly undulating rhythms and, in the coda, ripe, full-breathed Romantic ardor.

Joining Kahane after intermission were Margaret Batjer and Andrew Shulman, concertmaster and principal cellist respectively of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Matching Kahane in eloquence and warmth, they proceeded to give a finely burnished account of Brahms’ Piano Trio no. 1. Throughout there resounded a spirit of good humor. Not merely a meeting of great musicians, but from the sounds of it, one of good friends as well.