New York Philharmonic/Gilbert in London – 1

EXPO [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 February, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The New York Philharmonic arrived in London for the first of two concerts as part of a European tour with new music director Alan Gilbert. The connection between the New York Phil (as with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw orchestras) and the Barbican Centre is set to continue as an “International Associate” and, with it, exclusive residencies.

Yefim Bronfman. Photograph: Dario AcostaThere is no doubting that the New York Philharmonic is a virtuoso and distinctive ensemble, something that Magnus Lindberg’s EXPO, written last year for the NYP and the first piece that Gilbert conducted as music director, exploits in full measure. Over its 11-minute course there are plenty of ear-tingling ideas – not least some built-in Americanisms, and embracing Barber-like nostalgia – but with little suggestion of a cohesive whole, the work full of contrasts but with few threads between them en route to its closing sunset. No doubting the brilliant performance though.

With the standard-repertoire pieces by Prokofiev and Sibelius, misgivings set in, not in the quality of the playing, which was world-class throughout, but in the penetration (or lack) of interpretative insights. One can hardly criticise Yefim Bronfman for his super-virtuoso account of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto and the virtually perfect sync with the orchestra, but it was rather matter-of-fact at times, lacking the quietest dynamics, keeping the music’s demons under wraps, the huge cadenza in the first movement too controlled, the whole work rather limited in colour. It was only the darkly luminous playing of the violas cueing the finale’s folksong episode, itself played simply and affectingly by Bronfman, which stays in the memory; otherwise danger and mysticism were rarely suggested.

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Mats LundquistSibelius’s Second Symphony had the misfortune to follow an inspirational, intuitive and directional performance of it just a few days earlier conducted by Osmo Vänskä with the London Philharmonic (Royal Festival Hall). But even without that comparison, Alan Gilbert’s conducting of it was strangely earthbound and static, staid even. Yes, the playing was – once again – superb; the strings had sheen and depth, the lyrical beauty of Philip Smith’s trumpet solos was exceptional, so too the intense, hall-filling contribution from oboist Liang Wang, and the horns were attractively fruity-sounding; there were many wonders. But, the soul of the music was rarely suggested, and the phrasing was often self-conscious; and if the work’s nationalistic association was (by design or not) largely absent, the performance certainly seemed unidentified with the struggle, volatility and eventual triumph of this score, the ultimate coda having little justification on this occasion.

If the performance lacked impulse, it was beautifully balanced, something no doubt aided by the lack of risers for winds, brass and timpani; suddenly the Barbican Hall had more depth and less edge than has become usual, brass not dominating (LSO, please note), and Gilbert’s use of antiphonal violins (cellos and double basses fanning to the left) was another aural plus-point (exactly the same as Vänskä’s layout as it happens). The second encore, Valse triste, also suggested that Gilbert seems to enjoy the sound of Sibelius’s music, or relishes conjuring a sound that he believes suits him (smooth, warm, non-Nordic) – but, in the symphony, one was too aware of how the piece works rather than what it is about, no more than a piece the New York Philharmonic plays exceptionally well (if a surprising choice anyway given that Lorin Maazel included it in his final weeks of concerts as music director as recently as last June) but for which a gorgeous makeover simply wasn’t enough. The first encore, the ‘Polonaise’ from Eugene Onegin, pointed up what had been lacking in the symphony, Tchaikovsky’s dance lively and leaping and less calculated than the Sibelius had been.

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