Beethoven's Eighth Symphony is not music for warming up, even when the orchestra is as spectacularly talented as the New York Philharmonic, which performed Saturday at the Kennedy Center.
Under the baton of Christoph von Dohnanyi, who will become music director of the Cleveland Orchestra next season, the Philharmonic reached its usual high standards in "Till Eulenspiegel," the brilliant showpiece that concluded the program. It accompanied well in Schumann's Piano Concerto, though its playing was overshadowed by pianist Bella Davidovich's magnificent interpretation. And it made an eloquent case for Mannfred Trojahn's massive-sounding "First Sea Picture," composed in 1980.
But Beethoven came first, and it was more bad than good. The last two movements were better than the first two, which were played faster than optimum with a hard-edged sound and an impersonal quality that belied the essential joviality of this music. It almost sounded as though the orchestra was recalling (rather imperfectly) the kind of interpretation Toscanini used to give this music a half-century ago. I find it hard to imagine that the playing in this performance represents the final view of the symphony held by Dohnanyi, an excellent if uneven conductor who will need to be very good at Beethoven in Cleveland, where the late George Szell still casts a long shadow.
His direction was superb in the tense, often brilliant "Sea Picture." The heart of this episode is a sustained, compelling pulse in the bass (like the repetitive pounding of the surf, perhaps) over which a variety of colorfully orchestrated episodes come and go.
Dohnanyi also provided a carefully balanced and neatly phrased framework for Davidovich's stormy, poetic, technically assured reading of the Schumann.