New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert – Nielsen concertos with Robert Langevin and Nikolaj Znaider and Tchaikovsky’s Little Russian Symphony

Nielsen
Concerto for Flute and Orchestra
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op.33
Tchaikovsky
Symphony No.2 in C minor, Op.17 (Little Russian) [Revised Version]

Robert Langevin (flute)

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert


Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 11 October, 2012
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Chris LeeAlan Gilbert is an unabashed champion of Carl Nielsen’s music. The composer planned a concerto for each member of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, but completed only the one for flute and the one for clarinet. The Flute Concerto (1926) is a favorite of the New York Philharmonic’s Robert Langevin; he likes it for the extreme and sudden mood changes, even allowing the flute to sound violent. He gave a confident performance. While his tone never became ugly, its sweetness factor was highly controlled. When the music called for brilliance, his sound became forceful yet not harsh. He brought clarity to the fast passagework, while remaining mindful of the shaping of phrases. The Philharmonic was technically adept yet did not convey conviction in this meandering piece. Violin tuttis were clean but lacked phrasing. The work has alternating periods of traditional harmony and uprooted tonality, and the dialog of trills between the solo flute and a clarinet in the first movement just seemed bizarre.

Nikolaj ZnaiderWhile Nielsen was working on his Violin Concerto, he wrote about it to his wife: “It has to be good music … rich in content, popular, and dazzling without becoming superficial.” Nikolaj Znaider relishes his countryman’s concerto (and he recorded it many years ago). The stunning opening cadenza demonstrated that Nielsen succeeded in his challenge, and it displayed Znaider’s top assets – his gleaming sound and accurate intonation, as well as his tendency towards playing exceedingly fast with exquisite clarity. He never let the excitement subside. Yet this piece of contrasts calls out for more variation. Znaider’s tone was too shrill in lyrical passages, and he left little room for breathing space. His huge sound was magnificent in the first movement’s second cadenza, yet the overall effect was that of someone desperate to keep the audience entertained for each and every second. The opening of the second movement requires a meditative mood, and this was the low-point of the performance, with no easing up of Znaider’s super-concentrated tone. The folksy closing section was overly heavy, and an earlier balance problem reappeared, with the brass greatly overpowering the strings. Nielsen, himself a violinist, inserts several musical jokes into the work – the first-movement’s opening cadenza resolves with the violinist playing arpeggios over four strings, as in Mendelssohn’s E minor Concerto, and the second movement cadenza finishes with a quotation from the Tchaikovsky, followed by a short ironic phrase mocking it. The sudden ending has a humorous nature, yet Znaider and Gilbert were too serious to capture it.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Little Russian’ Symphony employs folksongs from the Ukraine (“Little Russia”). The premiere of the Revised Version was a success, the composer succeeding in merging nationalistic themes with European structure. The work begins with a horn solo, a minor-key melody ripe with pathos, played by Philip Myers with unblemished beauty, and then mirrored on the bassoon in a sensitively nuanced solo by Judith LeClair. The work’s ideas are repetitive yet Gilbert paced the long crescendos well, allowing suspense to build. The second movement had the right blend of simplicity and emotionality, and the small gradients of change in the tune’s many restatements kept the music alive and interesting. The first violins raged with anger in the highly chromatic scherzo. Gilbert initially held back on the finale’s climaxes, giving them powerful authenticity towards the end. The overall balance was excellent, with the passionate strings sounding as equals with the forceful brass and cymbal crashes.

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