New York Philharmonic/Gilbert [Brahms & Schoenberg]

Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Pelleas und Melisande, Op.5

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Andrew Farach-Colton

Reviewed: 24 September, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

Frank Peter Zimmermann. Photograph: Franz HammFrank Peter Zimmermann made a riveting entrance in Brahms’s Violin Concerto, holding the rhythms so tautly that he seemed to be pressing the tempo steadily forward. Then, in the final phrases of his opening solo, he slid elegantly between the larger melodic leaps, like a seasoned bel canto singer.

After such a promising start, it was especially frustrating that much of what followed failed to satisfy. There was plenty of excitement when the music was loud and vigorous (much of the first movement’s development section, for instance), but the quieter passages were insufficiently tender and sweet. Oddly enough, when playing at forte and above, Zimmermann’s tone is firm and halogen-bright, while his pianos and pianissimos sound strangely edgy and his intonation is less sure.

Alan Gilbert shaped and shaded the orchestral part with great care, and the smiling affection of the Philharmonic’s playing showed plainly what was missing on Zimmermann’s part.

Zimmermann was considerably more soulful in his encore, the Largo from Bach’s Sonata in C (BWV 1005). Here, too, his piano tone was far more focused and secure.

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Mats LundquistAfter the interval, Gilbert conducted Schoenberg’s late-Romantic extravaganza, Pelleas und Melisande. The conductor spoke to the audience first, isolating some of the tone-poem’s primary leitmotifs and significant passages, with the orchestra providing the musical illustrations. He may not have Leonard Bernstein’s gift for brilliant explication, but Gilbert’s clear, concise commentary was engaging as well as informative. At the end of the presentation, Gilbert called this score “the most beautiful music you’ll ever hear”. And his impassioned performance suggested that he meant just what he said.

There’s a lot going on in Schoenberg’s Pelleas, both in terms of contrapuntal complexity and dramatic incident. Gilbert reveled in the music’s detail, and given the sheer density of the score’s texture, the consistent sense of transparency he achieved was rather astonishing. His pacing was equally impressive. With its dozens of musical paragraph breaks, Pelleas can easily come across as distractingly episodic. Gilbert not only conveyed a thrilling sense of ebb and flow, but in his hands the narrative thrust never once stalled.

The Philharmonic responded to Gilbert wholeheartedly. The string tone in the love scene was so luscious, and the phrasing so suggestive, for example, it made one feel almost voyeuristic. Perhaps Pelleas’s death could have been realized with greater violence, but otherwise this was as vividly characterful and atmospheric a performance as one could wish for.

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