Fidelio, Op.72 – Overture
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77
Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
An American in Paris
Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
New York PhilharmonicAlan Gilbert
Reviewed by: Violet Bergen
Reviewed: 9 January, 2014
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
After its dreary initial reception, Beethoven made repeated revisions to his sole operatic oeuvre, which eventually shed its Leonore title in favor of the heroine’s cross-dressing counterpart. Beethoven wrote four different overtures. The penultimate and lengthy Leonore No.3 was discarded from the opera and replaced by the shorter eponymous piece set in a cheery E major, and no longer an attempt to condense the opera’s plot. Alan Gilbert’s interpretation resisted becoming too emotionally engaging. Despite an exuberant beginning, the performance was emotionally superficial, with unrelenting heavy accents rendering the melodic direction shapeless.
Shostakovich fell in and out of favor with the Soviet authorities during the 1940s due to his alleged “formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music.” He completed his First Violin Concerto in 1948, yet the piece was not premièred until 1955, after Stalin’s death. David Oistrakh had a hand in shaping a violin part that incorporates considerable technical demands. Lisa Batiashvili took on the challenge with an assuredness and contemplation that seemed to channel the essence of Cold War-era paranoia. In the opening ‘Nocturne’ she combined an icy tone with an unhurried timing that created an ominous climate. Moments of intensity were highly controlled and thrillingly suspenseful. In the second movement, she created an exquisite dialogue with the woodwinds, devising a ‘Scherzo’ of exciting conspiracy. Her intelligent approach eschewed virtuosity in favor of a continuation of the storyline. The Philharmonic’s string section was less on-the-ball, accurate but lacking edge, in its role of developing the plot. The orchestra further diverged from the soloist in the final two movements. The cello section began the ‘Passacaglia’ with a warm sound and rich vibrato that was a world apart from Batiashvili’s chilly timbre; her version called for a reflective and sorrowful mood, which was ignored. She ran the gamut of tonal complexity in the fiendish ‘Cadenza’, ranging from a whisper to the force of a hundred violins. Her perfectly tuned dissonances were epitome of Shostakovich’s tortured soul. Instead of allowing the tension to resolve in the ‘Finale’, she reigned in the passion, an intriguing departure from the expected fireworks. Though never drowning her out, the accompaniment remained heavy and insensitive.
Beethoven’s First Symphony has its roots firmly planted in the classicism of Mozart and Haydn. One critic was apparently concerned about the over-use of woodwind instruments. The Philharmonic’s superb section would have mollified this detractor with oboist Liang Wang particularly noteworthy in the grace of his solos. However, such details were not sufficient to redeem an uninspired performance. The bottom-heavy balance created an unwelcome sense of murkiness. The Andante was the low-light of the symphony, with the opening sounding tentative, and the dotted rhythms plodding away. Gilbert made the performance seem like hard work.
Fortunately, there was a complete change of direction in George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. “My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.” The Philharmonic thoroughly enjoyed making a big sound and added a dose of mirth to the taxi-horn imitations. The brass section was suitably raunchy and the swinging rhythms had engaging liveliness.