New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert – Coriolan Overture & Sinfonia espansiva – Leonidas Kavakos plays Korngold

Coriolan Overture, Op.62
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphony No.3, Op.27 (Sinfonia espansiva)

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

Erin Morley (soprano) & Joshua Hopkins (baritone)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 14 June, 2012
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeAs the New York Philharmonic’s season closed, the orchestra honored its members who are retiring. Some, such as violinists Enrico Di Cecco and Newton Mansfield, have devoted fifty years to the NYP. Its president, Zarin Mehta, has also announced his retirement. The orchestra played its collective heart out in tribute to them.

For the overture Alan Gilbert made a strange choice, given the celebratory nature of the evening: Beethoven’s dark, foreboding Coriolan. He rendered a forceful, urgent performance in the romantic spirit, enhanced by strong, incisive playing, and some beautifully phrased lyrical passages, particularly the second theme played by woodwinds and toward the close by the cellos.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto was written in 1945. Korngold’s romantic zest was perfectly suited to the swashbuckling films that he wrote for, and also deeply influenced this concerto. All of its three movements contain themes first heard in the cinematic scores from the late 1930s. The concerto’s soulful opening strain soars with nostalgic yearning. Winds then assert a more aggressive theme around this plaintive tune and the mood changes. The emotional core of the work is its almost unbearably beautiful second movement, which seems to conjure a shimmering vision of loveliness forever out of reach. A bravura third movement finds the soloist courageous and eager to embrace both pain and joy. As with much of Korngold’s music, sadness and sweetness mix with regret and unbounded joy.

Leonidas Kavakos. Photograph: Yannis BourniasLeonidas Kavakos gave a rather understated performance. Although his purity and sweetness of tone perfectly suits this music, his rather introverted manner seemed too restrained to adequately express its rhapsodic effusiveness. Kavakos seemed most comfortable expressing the soft, gentle starry night evoked in the middle movement; his golden tones in the highest range of the instrument were simply sublime. Gilbert set a lively pace for the finale, given its adventuresome character. Kavakos seemed to retreat from the unabashed emotions of the music at times, letting the technically difficult passages virtually play themselves. Toward the close, horns roared demonstratively, and then made way for a lively conclusion.

The concert’s second half was devoted to Carl Nielsen’s Sinfonia espansiva. With this symphony, written between 1910 and 1911, Nielsen reached a plateau in the development of his style. As with his two earlier symphonies, the Third opens with a flood of orchestral sound, first in forceful strokes that are propelled into the first movement’s main theme. Open-air spaciousness leads to congenial serenity; a dance (waltz) enters quietly in fugato only to be brushed aside by a fortissimo outburst in the strings that sails forth resplendently. Some passages have an affinity with the later-written Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony and The Lark Ascending. A soothing Brahmsian theme in the flute introduces the second movement, which evokes the gentle rolling fields of composer’s native Denmark in mid-summer. In the central section, a subdued lustrous glow evokes a warm sunset, enhanced by a wordless vocalize. The third movement is a steadily paced scherzo with grey tonal ambience. The allegro finale has an unmitigated sense of purpose. The movement’s climax is one of the most impressive in the entire symphony. Harmonic instability generates a sense of the unpredictable. Finally, the main theme returns, larger-than-life, as the symphony is brought to a triumphant conclusion.

The NYP under Gilbert’s able direction produced a strong and incisive performance. The orchestra played magnificently, tempos were well chosen and remained energetic without exceeding natural speed limits or losing shape. Strings were resilient throughout; brass shown with full regalia, sometimes covering the strings when they needed to be heard more distinctly; woodwinds were perky and effervescent. In the finale, after the reprise of the march toward the close, Gilbert suddenly accelerated the tempo (without any such direction in the score). Leonard Bernstein paved the way for this creative nuance, which works well, bringing excitement and urgency to the symphony’s conclusion. Only the two vocalists – placed within and toward the back of the orchestra – did not quite achieve the intended effect. Both sung well but Erin Morley did not consistently penetrate the level of sound that covered her while Joshua Hopkins came through the orchestral fabric more consistently.

Gilbert and the NYP will soon launch a project to record Nielsen’s six symphonies.

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