Flourish with Fireworks, Op.22
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
The Rite of Spring
Joshua Bell (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 8 December, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
Daniel Harding concluded his two-week stint with the New York Philharmonic with a concert opening with Flourish with Fireworks, composed by Oliver Knussen in 1988 for his friend Michael Tilson Thomas’s first season as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Knussen, who incorporates serial techniques in his music, builds his linear material, with reference to Stravinsky’s Fireworks, upon the initials LSO and MTT, in a rather complex method of transliteration from letters to tones. The opening bold outburst of dense polyphony for brass quickly evaporates and contrasts with softer, flickering woodwind figures in a leaner texture, the former based on LSO, the latter on MTT. There was too little time in which to speculate on whether these references may also be intended as characterizations, as the work was over in a three-minute flash.
Joshua Bell’s stylistic flair and rhapsodic, effusive manner made his deep affection for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto immediately evident. Occasional luftpausen and mellifluous shaping of phrases enhanced the romantic quality of the work, while energetic treatment of its many technically daunting passages added a measure of intensity and rhythmic verve. Bell’s balletic agility in the most difficult pyrotechnics of the outer movements and the élan with which he captured their familiar melodies were most impressive. Despite some ensemble imperfections, Bell gave the ‘Canzonetta’ a meditative character expressive of the Russian Soul, without inflicting unwarranted sadness upon the music. He deftly flew through the finale in total command, racing through the difficult coda with remarkable spirit and skill.
Even after countless performances of The Rite of Spring it can still sound fresh, but its familiarity can also cause dissatisfaction when a performance does not come up to snuff. Although the work exemplifies Stravinsky’s genius for instrumental color and harmonic elusiveness, this performance lacked the subtle shadings and reflexive nuances needed to evoke images of fantastic nature in the wild and of a pagan ritual culminating in the horrors of human sacrifice. Passages of eerie nocturnal stillness were instead illuminated by the bright light of day, swift tempos trampled over other passages, forfeiting clarity for an inconsequential jumble, and the percussionists were allowed to play an unduly overpowering role. Overall, the result was merely high volume and rash speed without subtlety, nuance or atmospheric coloration. Balances were also a frequent problem. As the ‘Dance of the Earth’ proceeds, overlapping volleys of flickering sixteenths should set the music aflame, but were too often buried beneath the welter of sound. And although Harding executed the metrical and rhythmical difficulties of the closing ‘Sacrificial Dance’ correctly and managed to produce some tension, he completely ruined the conclusion by slowing up in the last three bars as if he wanted to prolong the agonies of the sacrificial maiden before she gives up the ghost.