Last night I attended the last of three performances of a New York Philharmonic subscription program that cannily matched Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements with Ravel's 2nd Suite from the ballet Daphnis & Chloe for its second half, and began with Frank Peter Zimmermann as soloist in Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Music Director Alan Gilbert was on the podium. The orchestra provided excellent execution, as did Zimmermann. Yet I came away with curiously mixed impressions.
For one thing, Gilbert seems to have been hit with a strong dose of moderation in his preparation for this program, at least so far as tempo goes. All of the tempi throughout the evening seemed to me to avoid extremes of speed or slowness. Everything went along at a moderate pace, squarely within the performing traditions of these pieces.
This worked best in the Ravel, where the sharp articulation and instrumental unanimity, together with steady pacing and carefully-workout-out phrasing, presented the music in all of its lush wonder. The only spoiler factor here, to a small extent, was the hall itself, or at least the hall from the perspective of my seat – 2nd tier, side box 9. At moments of climax, the sound lacked that gorgeous combination of bloom, brilliance and depth that makes the most of Ravel's extraordinary orchestrational effects, and brass tended to sound blasty. Perhaps that was not the case from other vantage points in the hall, but I would love to have heard this orchestra playing this piece in Carnegie Hall, with its greater warmth and space better configured to project the depth of orchestral sound conceived by Ravel, and with slightly faster tempi for Daybreak and the final General Dance.
The moderate tempi undermined the impact of Beethoven's concerto for me as well. I don't agree with Gilbert's assertion in the program book that Beethoven's is "perhaps the greatest of all Violin Concertos." I have frequently found the first movement to be over-extended and repetitious, and the finale to be a bit underwhelming for a work of this length, similar to the "finale problem" that has aroused some comment about the Eroica (Symphony No. 3). Beethoven was, without doubt, one of the great musical geniuses of all time, but not every one of his productions was on the same exalted level, and the Violin Concerto is a bit more commonplace than most of his other orchestral works. I would agree that it was the best violin concerto of its time — what other violion concerto written in the first 20 years of the 19th century is regularly played today? — but I would place Mozart's 4th and 5th Concerti about it in inspiration, and I think the Brahms Concerto places it in the shade, as do the two Prokofiev Concerti and perhaps, even, the Stravinsky Concerto.
That said, a really intense, super-charged performance of the piece can stimulate my interest (listen to Heifetz with Toscanini/NBC Symphony or with Munch/Boston Symphony, for example), but a moderate, middle-of-the-road rendition, no matter how excellent, will cause my mind to wander, as it did last night. Zimmermann's performance was at the highest technical level, but I thought it lacked the deep emotional involvement and urge to push forward that would make the concerto more memorable.
As for the Stravinsky, I constantly wanted it to move along faster in the outer movements. I thought the middle movement, with its restrained lyricism, worked best of the three. This piece, although called a symphony, is really more like a ballet in its style of composition. One hears bits and pieces of the kind of music Stravinsky was writing for Balanchine to choreograph throughout this part of his career, and there are many spots that are clear reminiscences of Le Sacre du Printemps as well as some startling foreshadowing of the ballets Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were composing during that period stretching from the 1940s to the early 1950s. Stravinsky had a heavy influence on mid-20th century tonal composers, and the source of that influence can be heard in this piece.
I can't fault the Philharmonic players, who were truly dazzling and gave Gilbert everything he asked for, with the wind soloists special standouts. I disagreed with some of what he asked for, that's all. And none of these were "bad" performances, it's just that they didn't excite me to the extent that this music has excited me in other hands.