NY Philharmonic’s Brilliant Beethoven 2nd Symphony

I have quite an accumulation of concerts and theater events to blog about from the past several weeks, and I’ve been meaning to catch up with a cultural diary entry, but I couldn’t wait to write about tonight’s concert by the New York Philharmonic, so I’m jumping the line to do it while it is fresh in memory.

David Robertson, Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony, is this week’s guest conductor.  Tonight’s performance was the first of three performance of this program, with guest soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a distinguished exponent of 20th-21st century piano music.  Perhaps not so distinguished an exponent of 18th century piano music, however, to judge by his appearance on the first half of the program.

But I’ll begin with the high points of the evening – a brilliant recreation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36, a heartfelt and moving rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s early work, Les Offrandes oubliees (The Forgotten Offerings: Symphonic Meditation), written when the composer was just 22, and the U.S. premiere performance of Tristan Murail’s piano concerto, titled The Disenchantment of the World.  This concerto was jointly commissioned by several orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, and first publicly performed last summer, also with Mr. Aimard as soloist, in Dresden with a different conductor and orchestra.

It is difficult to respond at first hearing to a work like the Murail concerto.  It is in an unfamiliar idiom – the so-called spectral music originated in late-20th century France and taken up by many composers in varying degrees.  We’ve heard some of it in New York due to Magnus Lindberg’s extended residency for the first few years of Alan Gilbert’s direction of the orchestra.  But I find this style of composition difficult, not because of any particular intricacy but rather because of the lack of the familiar signposts of an extended piece of music.  This work takes almost half an hour but has no easily comprehended structure, no “tunes” as such, and no development in the style of the familiar repertory works of the classical and romantic periods, even of early-to-mid 20th century tonal modernism, such as Prokofiev or Shostakovich.  Instead, the focus is on sonic color and texture, with motifs of various lengths flung around but never quite developed, crashing chords in the piano, long held chords in the winds and strings, strident outbursts, occasional emergence of vehement rhythms.  There seems to be plenty of drama, but no coherent “story” at work.  At times, I was reminded of the second movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 4 – but without the quoted patriotic and sentimental tunes, just the dissonance, the racket, the odd tunings (Ives went in for quarter-tones in his 4th Symphony, and Murail does something similar).  Everybody seemed to be strongly engaged on stage, but at times one wondered to what effect?  I found my attention wandering at times, but then something distinctive would emerge and draw me in again.  I certainly think it was worth hearing, and I strongly support the Philharmonic commissioning and performing new music.  The repertory must be refreshed with new works, and one can never know what will sink in and take root and earn repeated performances.  Perhaps this work will.  It is hard to say.

The Mozart – on this occasion, the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488 – should not have been on the program.  I think the challenge of the long, difficult Murail concerto was more than enough to occupy Aimard’s attention, and it showed in the Mozart performance.  Aimard played without the printed music, and all was well for the first two movements, but things came apart in the Rondo finale, as he became rather lost in the music, suddenly finding himself out of sync with the orchestra and momentarily unsure of where he was, falling silent until a melodic entry in the woodwinds brought him back into phase to a triumphant conclusion.  (Such recoveries are always gratifying to see, but one’s heart almost stops when the soloist’s panicked look signals a breakdown.)  Although the first two movements were technically immaculate, I didn’t have the feeling that Mozart was Aimard’s emotional focus of the evening.  The first movement had a quality of rote brilliance but not deep engagement.  The second movement seemed unduly placid.  Things actually seemed to perk up a bit in the witty finale, but then, as can easily happen in a Mozart Rondo, the pianist — whose fingers can easily go into autopilot with the continuous scales and arpeggios and repeated figurations — suddenly loses concentration and forgets quite where he is in the music.  Too bad.  I’m sure it won’t happen for the repeat performances.  (Maybe he should bring out the printed music with him just to be sure.)  He’s got plenty on his mind with the Murail….  And the young page turner who assisted him in the Murail could just as well assist him in the Mozart, and will probably find it easier to follow the music.

As I mentioned above, the Messiaen and Beethoven performances were quite brilliantly done.  Robertson has a flare for Messiaen, not surprising given his background, and he brings a fresh perspective to Beethoven, a sense of discovery and, in the last two movements, wit.  This orchestra really shines in the major works of the standard repertory, and the Beethoven was no exception.  If one had an occasional sense in the second movement that ensemble in the strings was not as “tight” as it might be, one could put that down to the exigencies of rehearsing a long program with a major, unfamiliar premiere, and I’m sure it will get tighter as this series of concerts continues.  It was only in the second movement that I had that feeling.  The scherzo was a high point, and for once really played with pointed humor, benefiting tremendously by the seating of the first and second violins opposite each other, as Beethoven obviously expected from the way he scored the piece, producing effects that can easily be obscured by the seating popularized early in the 20th century by Stokowski of massing all the violins to the left of the conductor. (Happily, Gilbert usually seats the violins on opposing sides, but they were back in the old configuration a few weeks ago when Loren Maazel was guest-conducting.)

Overall, this was an excellent, if overlong, concert.  With Messiaen and Murail on the program, there were empty seats in the hall, so anybody looking for a sonic treat — the Murail is certainly that – and a thrilling performance of a work of pure genius from Beethoven, should consider getting a ticket for the repeats on Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.

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