Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73
Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 10 June, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
Alan Gilbert began the concert with music by Magnus Lindberg. Born in 1958, in Helsinki, he studied there at the Sibelius Academy under such important composers as Einojuhani Rautavaara and Paavo Heininen and attended summer courses under Franco Donatoni (in Siena) and Brian Ferneyhough (in Darmstadt). Thus his musical training had been under the tutelage of composers whose music represents a wide variety of compositional styles. After a venture into musique concrète in the early eighties, he began to refine his style, both in terms of orchestration and harmony.
Arena, written in 1995 on commission by the first International Sibelius Conductors Competition (and later revised for sixteen instruments and entitled Arena II), is a complex 16-minute composition that presents fragments of linear material supported by vast blocks of chordal overlay mostly in the brass animated by vigorous string figuration. Although melody as such is among Lindberg’s compositional concerns, here it is dramatic intensity that sustains interest, either through driving force or unexpected explosive outbursts and then retreat into the textural network of complex countervailing lines. Occasional calmer moments, such as surround the fervent cello solo about halfway into the piece, reveal independent linear material enhanced by decorative figuration. More often the entire orchestra pours forth a profusion of contrasting rhythms and massive chordal blocks that create dense textures that keep shifting in complex counterpoise. But this is not merely cerebral music; it has dramatic thrust and uplifting exuberance, and can be as combative as it is exhilarating. Clearly, Lindberg has achieved complete mastery of orchestration, with particularly interesting use of percussion. The NYP and Gilbert’s complete mastery of this difficult score was evident.
With a nod to the source of the Lindberg commission, the concert continued with Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. The struggles that Sibelius had to go through financially during the writing of this masterpiece are legendary. It could be considered the last major orchestral works Sibelius wrote in his nationalist-romantic style, with occasional nods to Tchaikovsky. Lisa Batiashvili has recorded the concerto with the one written for her by Lindberg. Her playing was self-assured, technically proficient and generally sparked by dramatic flair and sensitivity of expression. Although I sensed a slight reserve in the first movement, that somewhat detracted from the heartrending pathos its lyricism conveys, she executed the two cadenzas almost flawlessly and with profound sensitivity. By the second movement, she seemed more involved, playing this pensive romance with sensitivity of expression and nuance. The polonaise-like finale calls for a challenging measure of virtuosity, which Batiashvili met with vigor and self-assurance. Gilbert accompanied her respectfully, never permitting the orchestra to bury her contribution even when the full orchestra lets loose. But when she rested, he went for the grand gesture, letting the orchestra show how much power it can produce.
In Brahms’s Second Symphony, Gilbert’s youthful, energetic reading of the outer movements was enhanced by his sensitive approach to lyrical phrasing, superbly balancing each individual or sectional contribution, although the relatively tame slow movement seemed more flamboyant than called for as forte sections boarded on fortissimo. With such emphasis on eliciting the grand gesture, the grayish tinge of melancholy this movement should convey was missing. Yet the strings played with more tonal brilliance and vibrancy that we have come to expect in recent years. Gilbert’s energetic approach to the Allegretto spilled over into the finale, which was certainly played ‘con spirito’, the orchestra driven to display its many attributes with deliberate intent, as if to send a message that it has been regenerated under its new maestro.
Yet Brahms’s Second is an unusual work with which to have the orchestra show how much force it can produce. Thus, one might consider the performance somewhat over the top. However, if such spectacular playing results from Gilbert’s serious commitment, driving energies and romantic spirit, it could attract the younger generation that just may be ready to experience such sheer exhilaration. That, too, would be something to celebrate.