Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is core repertoire for orchestras large and small. For a piece I imagine the New York Philharmonic has performed dozens of times, I was shocked by the wholly unacceptable intonation from a group of this caliber. The Philharmonic is ostensibly the US’s flagship ensemble, but on this night much of the playing was underwhelming. The Concerto was not played with the full complement of principals (who joined for the second half), but it is bewildering for an orchestra of this ability to play so recklessly out of tune. Baiba Skride is often quite the communicator, connecting her eyes and sound to duets with an orchestra’s members. But for this performance she failed to compel in the lyrical passages. Her intonation was also not what one would expect from a frontline soloist; even in the first-movement cadenza the largest shifts were not accurate. The tempo of the second movement was so static that this walking Andante seemed like a perfunctory stroll. While this is not one of Tchaikovsky’s deepest works, it still requires convincing pathos. To her credit, Skride refused to slow down when the orchestra and/or Susanna Mälkki underestimated her quickest tempos.
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Helix (2005) is a great partner for La mer. The former has a touch of Ravel’s Boléro as it relies on ostinatos that ascend and intensify. Helix is a somewhat metallic, industrial work: the percussionists were outstanding and the brass-playing was keen in a commensurate manner, all the Philharmonic members valiantly meeting every challenge. Mälkki is a considerate but commanding musician. Her overall reading of the Debussy was standard, however, flexible if not flowing, and at least more of the Philharmonic’s abilities came to bear, and solos were generally outstanding: Frank Huang (concertmaster), Anthony McGill (clarinet) and Robert Langevin (flute) deserve special praise, and the horns put on a Debussy clinic with a warmly enveloping sound.