New York Philharmonic/Gilbert Leif Ove Andsnes – Webern, Mozart & Schumann

Im Sommerwind: Idyll for Orchestra
Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Symphony, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.61

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Andrew Farach-Colton

Reviewed: 30 December, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Alan Gilbert. Photograph: Mats LundquistEarlier this season, Alan Gilbert prefaced a superb performance of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande with some spoken words to the audience, providing welcome pointers (with musical examples) that aided in untangling the work’s thematic intricacies. When, after the interval, Gilbert again picked up a microphone before conducting Webern’s Symphony, Opus 21, one naturally expected a similarly helpful introduction. Instead, Gilbert’s speech was more or less an apology. He said that this music might seem “strange” and “difficult”, but that Webern’s craftsmanship had been proven in the rich Romanticism of Im Sommerwind (after a poem by Bruno Wille, which the orchestra had played – ravishingly – at the beginning of the program), so the composer surely knew what he was doing when he wrote this “pointillist” piece. “I happen to love it”, Gilbert admitted, “but I can’t exactly say why.” If the conductor has no explanation, wouldn’t it be better to say nothing at all and let the music speak for itself?

Gilbert didn’t leave it at that, though. He had Philharmonic cellist Eric Bartlett stand up to assure the audience members to keep their ears open, as “there’s got to be something there” in the music. The orchestra’s artistic administrator, John Mangum, also spoke. If Gilbert wanted to help the audience find its way into the composer’s world, he might have mentioned Otto Klemperer’s experience with Webern’s Symphony. As Klemperer told Peter Heyworth in “Conversations with Klemperer” (Faber & Faber, 1985):
I couldn’t find my way into it. I found it terribly boring. So I asked Webern – I was staying in Vienna – to come and play it to me on the piano. Then perhaps I would understand it better. He came and played every note with enormous intensity and fanaticism.” [“Not coolly?” Heyworth asks.] “No, passionately! When [Webern] had finished I said, ‘You know, I cannot conduct it in that way. I’m simply not able to bring that enormous intensity to your music. I must do as well as I can’.

Apparently, Gilbert couldn’t conduct it in that way, either. His interpretation was admirably clear-textured but distressingly foursquare and cool.

Leif Ove Andsnes. Photograph: Lorenzo AgiusThe remainder of the concert – aside from Im Sommerwind – was similarly disappointing. Leif Ove Andsnes is not a particularly poetic Mozartean. His crisp, emotionally-reticent approach worked reasonably well in the outer movements of the A major Piano Concerto, though the result was efficient rather than effervescent. Also, the orchestra never played much below forte, so most of the pianist’s finer shadings were obscured. The slow movement flowed easily – too easily, in fact, as if trying to pay no attention to the music’s profound melancholy. This was Mozart on Prozac.

Schumann’s Second Symphony fared no better. Gilbert’s super-sleek reading drained all tension from the score. There was no vitality in the Allegro of the first movement, for example. All the agitated, dotted rhythms and nervous syncopations were polished over or ironed out. This is music that should claw and scrape its way forward; instead, it ambled amiably. The scherzo (in which the strings play rather like a perpetual motion machine) was rendered with such little inflection, warmth or charm that it sounded rather like a monotonous orchestral etude. In the Adagio, not only did the arching melodies become smooth but there was no recognition that the unrelenting, syncopated accompaniment is the music’s yearning, beating heart. And where was the angst in the coda’s surprisingly bitter harmonies? The finale chugged heavily along. Yes, the strings sounded silky, the brass shone, and there were some truly lovely woodwind solos, but this is more than just a pretty piece.

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