This Philharmonic concert opened with the New York premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Gambit “based on a few gestures, or archetypes, which are combined and juxtaposed in different ways.” The principal gestures consist of a descending, essentially pentatonic, scale, and an underlying rhythmic pattern, which remain virtually unchanged. Salonen quotes from works by Magnus Lindberg, to whom Gambit is dedicated. It starts with soft, sustained string tones that create a celestial atmosphere, punctuated occasionally by woodblocks. Explosive brass chords suddenly burst out with clamoring timpani volleys; here the influence of The Rite of Spring becomes evident. As the tempo picks up, various rhythms collide and contrast, building to a deafening climax, which is aborted suddenly. Such contrasts provide the main material for this fascinating work. Paavo Järvi led a finely-wrought, vibrant and well-balanced performance.
Leif Ove Andsnes’s stirring account of Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto spoke well for this rather neglected work. The composer’s progressive craftsmanship and modernistic elements were emphasized over his formidable melodic gifts. Andsnes gave an intense and strongly accented reading of the first movement, his brilliant yet subtle stance perfectly matched by extraordinary technique. Violins sounded vibrant in their few displays of lyricism and a dark side to the music evidenced deep, relentless turmoil, a stirring climax toward the movement’s end rending asunder the preceding meditative passages, yet leaving emotions unresolved. Andsnes gave the opening of the slow movement a nostalgic character, deeply expressive, then suddenly pouncing on the keys to usher in an outpouring of rage and embitterment. The rapid figures, punctuated by slashing orchestral chords, which open the Finale prefigure the release of previously pent-up feelings, a lighter second subject providing a perfect counterpoise. In a taut, intense reading, Andsnes and Järvi – perfectly in sync – relentlessly drove the music to a stupendous climax, energy and tension maintained to the end.
As an encore, Andsnes offered Sibelius’s B-minor Impromptu (Opus 5/5) and his Fifth Symphony filled the second half. Järvi’s reading was essentially foursquare, with moments of high concentration falling short of the music’s dramatic character, not least the first movement’s peroration. Slightly brisk pacing for the middle movement made its peasant-like dance music lilting and effervescent. Vigorous treatment of the subdued opening the Finale served as a nondescript rhythmic underpinning, but whether it was the acoustical inadequacies of David Geffen Hall or dynamic limitations imposed on the brass, its bell-like tones should have resounded with greater resilience and a firmer sense of arrival. At this moment of awesome grandeur, one should feel a sense of resolution, achieved after a long search for a life-fulfilling goal. Overall, though, the performance had substantial merit.