Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 8 May, 2014
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
In one of his rare appearances as a guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernard Haitink demonstrated from the very beginning that even in this problematic hall he can elicit a warm, full sound from the strings. However, Webern’s early and atypically lush ‘Idyll’ received a somewhat understated performance, as if seen through a veil without lifting it every so often to pay tribute to the liveliness of youth. Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow’s solos, played with his customary sweet tone, fitted in perfectly with the conductor’s concept.
While female soloists’ attire sometimes attracts comment for allegedly distracting the listener, the adjective which came to mind when Leonidas Kavakos entered was ‘inappropriate’. Dressed in an un-tucked black shirt and skinny pants he looked like an over-age student out for a walk in the park. Practically ignoring the audience he stood almost motionless, more or less playing for himself, with little projection, variety, or particular insight into the piece. All the notes were there, but his affect was the same throughout most of the work. Only toward the end was there any hint of involvement in this otherwise monochromatic performance. As Kavakos has also turned to conducting, one can only hope that he presents himself more expressively on the podium.
The ‘Eroica’ started well, with energetic chords and forward momentum. However, this slowly fizzled and the piece settled into a comodo tempo, still moving ahead, but now from bar to bar, rather than from phrase to phrase. Regrettably this would be the pattern for the remaining movements – starting at a certain tempo only to relax it afterwards. Thus the scherzo soon lost its sparkle, and the finale’s variations became gradually heavier. Only the ‘Funeral March’ benefitted from Haitink’s slowing down after a somewhat unsettled beginning. While this achieved a more solemn character, one still wished for more profundity. The performance also was marred by balance issues. Because today’s string sections are much larger than they were in Beethoven’s day, the woodwinds, which often are treated as equal partners, simply cannot be heard adequately – particularly when there are no risers – unless they are reinforced as well. Doubling was common practice as early as the 1780s, but unfortunately it has now fallen out of favor. Beethoven himself endorsed it, so why not be authentic and do his music justice?