New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert & Frank Peter Zimmermann – Bach, Berg & Brahms

Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, BWV1043
Violin Concerto
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert (violin)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 6 October, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Alan Gilbert seems to have hit a comfortable stride as he begins his third season as music director of the New York Philharmonic. His diverse talents were on display in this ‘three Bs’ program – music by Bach, Brahms and Berg (rather than Beethoven).

Frank Peter Zimmermann. Photograph: Franz HammTo begin, Gilbert joined Frank Peter Zimmermann, this season’s artist-in-residence, for Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, accompanied by a dozen (standing) violinists and violists with three cellos, double bass and harpsichord. There was no visible ‘conducting’ beyond providing an upbeat for each movement – a task which the soloists shared. Gilbert played a 1715 Stradivarius from which he drew a marvelously warm sound with lustrous low notes, especially in the rhapsodic Largo. Zimmermann’s playing was a bit flashier, with his 1711 Strad shining in the upper registers.

Then Zimmermann, aided by sensitive support from Gilbert and the NYP, gave a stirring performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, ably tapping into its deep emotional content. The concerto, a requiem for Manon Gropius (the daughter of Alma Mahler by her second husband, the architect Walter Gropius), was completed four months after the girl’s death at age eighteen – and just four months before Berg’s own passing on Christmas Eve of 1935. (The spirit of consolation embodied in the concerto was particularly welcome on this occasion; just prior to the concert I had stood silently with many people who had come to the Apple Store a block away from Lincoln Center in remembrance of Steven Jobs, who died the previous day.)

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeBerg based his two-movement concerto on a 12-tone row that begins with the four notes of the violin’s open strings – which are played as gentle ascending and descending arpeggios in the initial bars – and ends with the first four notes of the chorale ‘Es ist genug!’, which Bach used in his Cantata, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort. The concerto concludes with variations on that chorale tune, with four clarinets playing Bach’s harmonization alternating with Berg’s own, rather more chromatic, setting for the solo violin and orchestra. Toward the end of this section, following Berg’s instructions, Zimmermann stepped back between the first violin and viola sections, leading them as they first joined and then dropped away from the solo violin. Zimmermann’s melodic violin, the ethereal clarinet quartet, and the orchestra’s responsiveness to Gilbert’s directions combined to make these passages quite spellbinding.

In the rather vigorous middle portions of the work – the Allegretto that ends the first movement and the Allegro that begins the second – Zimmermann’s playing was both dazzling and muscular enough to avoid being overshadowed in even the loudest tutti passages. But it was the softer and more lyrical sections that made the deepest impressions, culminating in Zimmermann’s final, sustained note soaring high above as the first violins played the open-string arpeggios with which the solo instrument had begun the concerto.

Gilbert concluded the concert with an engaging reading of Brahms’s Third Symphony. In the opening Allegro con brio, attacks were emphatic, string articulation precise, and horns and winds in excellent form. The winds played the swaying wind serenade that opens the mostly bucolic Andante with considerable charm, returning in a somewhat darker vein after a stormy central passage. In the Poco allegretto, major-key interludes were contrasted nicely with the pervasive minor-mode melody that was taken up in turn by the cellos, flutes, oboes and horns, a beautifully played horn solo and finally by the strings. The performance really took off in the concluding Allegro, with Gilbert bringing the full power of the orchestra into play with propulsive energy and shattering climaxes. But there were also gentler moments of great beauty, particularly a delicate passage for violas followed by clarinets, as well as fine contributions from shimmering strings, woodwinds, and a brass chorale before the symphony’s gentle ending.

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