New York Philharmonic/Gilbert in London – 2

Symphony No.49 in F minor (La Passione)
The Wound-Dresser
Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6

Thomas Hampson (baritone)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 February, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

On an evening when Maciejewski’s Requiem was being brought out of hibernation in Westminster Cathedral, when Lucia di Lammermoor was first-nighting at English National Opera, Magdalena Kožená was at Wigmore Hall, Esa-Pekka Salonen was conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra with Viktoria Mullova in the Royal Festival Hall, and Dalston Songs was returning to the Linbury Studio (Royal Opera House), music-lovers resident in or visiting London had many choices. The Barbican Hall was sold-out for the second London concert – and the final one of its European tour (which has included various German cities, Geneva, Madrid and Paris) – by the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert, which offered an attractive selection and juxtaposition of music.

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Mats LundquistThe symphonies by Haydn and Schubert, although beautifully played, became bland and rarely engaged on levels deeper than being essayed with finesse and unimpeachable security. The opening (slow) movement of the Haydn enjoyed solemn and graceful entreaties and dynamic contrasts, and although tempos were unfailingly well-judged throughout, the lack of tonal variety and expressive identity rather undid Haydn’s unpredictability. One wondered – with 104 symphonies available – why Alan Gilbert had chosen this one, and why he should want such a string-heavy balance (even with these sections reduced in personnel) that meant that the pairs of horns and oboes, and the bassoon, were ‘lost’ for many passages and the abrasive edge of the music blunted; at least the harpsichord came through nicely.

A similar lack of empathy informed the Schubert; again it was a lovely if arguably too homogeneous sound that was created – but little more, the consoling warmth of the cellos, the woodwind solos, all great – but the two movements were harried along, the second in particular, with some ungainly turns along the way. The whole thing was dispassionate, the repeat of the first-movement exposition superfluous – nothing beyond the notes had been exposed or suggested first time around, and that’s how it was going through it again.

Thomas Hampson. ©Petra SpiolaJohn Adams’s setting of Walt Whitman for The Wound-Dresser benefitted from Thomas Hampson’s refulgent and vivid baritone, moving words describing Whitman’s experiences of serving in military hospitals during the American Civil War. The music can sometimes be dreary, though, moments of poignancy few and far between, suggesting that full justice was not done to the text, the musical invention on the cusp of being memorable but not quite making it. One moment of activity for the oboe suggested Ravel’s Daphnis, and Sheryl Staples’s light-emitting violin solos (concertmaster Glenn Dicterow was taking a break) and, once again, wonderfully communicative trumpet solos from Philip Smith stood out; but the use of a synthesizer and its ring-tones added naught, detracted even, and seemed not to belong to the ‘human’ orchestra.

Over these two consecutive concerts, the three symphonies played (it was Sibelius 2 the previous evening) all lost their individuality to the ‘New York/Gilbert way’, however impressive sonically and technically. That said, Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra (rarely played let alone toured, and stimulating programming) was stunning. At last, music-making to be involved with rather than benignly observed, and played with fantastic security and finish, every shade, shadow, gesture and inflection brought off with exacting placement. This is great music – which still seems to pose problems to some people (a few left during its 20-minute course – just tell them that it’s the music Mahler might have written had he lived a few more years) – that here had an emotional thrust missing so conspicuously at other times. In the final movement, ‘Marsch’, a real sense of terror was present (this is World War One music), yet this is also non-specific music in its remarkable complexity, which is also lucid (the ‘string trio’ of Dicterow, Cynthia Phelps and Carter Brey made very characterful contributions through the layers of texture), and in its capacity to thrill and move, as it certainly did on this occasion. As before, with the orchestra members on the same floor level (no risers), balance was impeccable, the Barbican Hall acoustic losing its restriction and propensity for over-brightness. The Mahler 6-like hammer-blows were perfectly sounded and impacted, and if the arteries of the music were not as severed as ideal – Gilbert doesn’t seem to find crossroads and hiatuses in music – the brass peroration at the end was phenomenally articulated and the brutal cut-off truly shocking.

That, frankly, would have been enough, for with the Overture from Beethoven’s music for Egmont we returned to something effective but smoothly operated (superb timpani-playing though) and if ‘Lonely Town’ (from Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town) seemed a rather downbeat ending to the concert (and the tour), it was played with the same possessiveness that the Vienna Philharmonic brings to a Johann Strauss waltz. “This music is ours”, the NY Phil to a man and woman was saying, something not always apparent with some of the other repertoire.

The New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert will be very welcome when they return to London in February 2012 (and beyond: before this concert Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director of the Barbican Centre, and Zarin Mehta, President and Executive Director of the Philharmonic, signed an agreement to this effect) – but this current musical menu and its serving suggests that, next time, forget the classics and bring instead some ‘difficult’ stuff (Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, for instance, and also some William Schuman, it’s his centenary this year) and a goodly selection of Lenny’s legacy.

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