New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert in London – Polaris, Symphony in Three Movements, Daphnis et Chloé – Joyce DiDonato sings Berlioz

Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra [Barbican Centre & New York Philharmonic co-commission: UK premiere]
Les nuits d’été, Op.7
Symphony in Three Movements
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2

Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 February, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The second of the New York Philharmonic’s four Barbican Hall concerts (a residency with community leanings that is set to be a regular London feature) opened with Thomas Adès’s Polaris (2011), bought into by six orchestras and the Barbican Centre. Polaris, the North Star, is the god of magnetism; thus Adès invites an orchestra to be attracted to the note A, as familiarly tuned to. It’s a rather uneventful journey, the musical anchor dropped way too early when the ear tired of the initially attractive web of sound created by piano, harps, violin pizzicatos and high woodwinds. Repetition and glitter proved no substitute for development and a sense of direction. The performance (the option to place brass high and wide taken, to striking effect) wasn’t without a few glitches and given these fifteen minutes appeared to take us nowhere – unlike say this composer’s Piano Quintet or Asyla – there seems no need to invest in a return ticket.

Joyce DiDonato. Photograph: Sheila RockOnce past the first song, ‘Villanelle’, ideally paced in its relaxed measures but incurring an inelegant turn of phrase near the end that suggested singer and players coming adrift, Berlioz’s settings of Gautier proved captivating. Joyce DiDonato, now settled, bestowed some creamy-toned yearning and gleaming top notes onto one of Berlioz’s least-extravagant creations, music from the soul with no need to rush or emote and here aching with understated passion and pregnant pauses enhanced by illuminating details from the small orchestra.

To an audience including conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and broadcaster John Humphrys, the Philharmonic then played (after intermission) Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, which found any earlier executive looseness totally banished, the musicians (a previous Philharmonic generation premiered this masterpiece in 1946) tearing into the opening movement with precision and power, one of the world’s great orchestras in full bloom, although brass was sometimes too loud to the detriment of the strings (a common problem – and fault – these days) yet the all-important piano came through well. If Alan Gilbert’s tempo for the opening salvo was well below the requested ‘crotchet = 160’, such deliberation worked well for purposes of clarity and rhythmic élan. Less successful was the matter-of-fact way with the balletic second movement, the mystic beauties of the ‘song of Bernadette’ interlude rather glossed over (beautifully played though). The finale, for all the point and pulsation, wasn’t quite unified enough to clinch the whole; overall, the notes were mastered but not necessarily their (war-time) motivation: Stravinsky may be the abstract composer par excellence but this is music that should scorch (emotionally) and seduce more than it did here.

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeSaving the best until last, the Ravel was wonderful, the opening ‘dawn chorus’ perfectly pixelated, the sun rose gloriously and the brass puckered-up ideally when Daphnis and Chloé are reunited with a kiss. Robert Langevin’s flute solo was a limpid marvel and the closing bacchanal was joyous. As an encore, Chabrier’s exuberant España (a rarity these days, sadly) was equally stunning as playing, everything in place, and given with enjoyment. Finally, out of the blue, Gilbert halting the applause, came That’s a Plenty, a 1914 piano-ragtime number by Lew Pollack, its well-known tune arranged for brass quintet (horn, two trumpets, trombone and tuba), with a Dixieland buzz, that left no doubt as to the New York Phil’s chutzpah and that at least five of its members can let their hair down! No doubt they can all party!

  • Two New York Philharmonic Barbican concerts on 18 February, at 4 p.m. & 7.30
  • Barbican

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