New York Philharmonic/Maazel – Enigma Variations

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Overture, Op.21
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Horn Concerto in E flat, K417
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Viviane Hagner (violin)

Philip Myers (horn)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 3 January, 2008
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Jerome AshbyThe first half of this New York Philharmonic concert marked a farewell and a debut. It began with a memorial tribute to Jerome Ashby, the orchestra’s Associate Principal Horn and Principal Wagner Tuba, who died at age 51 on December 26. Ashby had been with the Philharmonic since 1979 and served on the faculties of Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, The Curtis Institute of Music, and the Aspen Music Festival and School. During his treatment for prostate cancer, Ashby drew inspiration from a recording by the Vienna Philharmonic’s horn section of the Evening Prayer from Humperdinck’s “Hänsel und Gretel”, which the New York Philharmonic’s brass players performed in his honour.

The scheduled programme then commenced with music director Lorin Maazel leading the orchestra in two works by Mendelssohn with German violinist Viviane Hagner in her New York Philharmonic debut. In Maazel’s hands the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture was magical in spirit as first the flutes and then the rapid-figured violins created a ethereal atmosphere that later took on other delicate guises with violin pizzicatos and tremolos. Lyrical passages for the winds and strings were gently played, contrasting with forceful contributions from horns, brass (the tuba was exceptional!) and timpani creating a bright and lively sound.

Viviane HagnerMendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto received an equally winning performance from Maazel and Viviane Hagner, who showed both an accomplished technique and sensitive musicality. This concerto was innovative in a number of ways, beginning by having the solo instrument play the main theme just a moment after the work begins rather than following a lengthy orchestral introduction. Hagner took full advantage of this opportunity to display her sweet intonation of this beloved melody on her Stradivarius (the 1717 “Sasserno”, on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation). Also unusual for its time was Mendelssohn’s positioning of the cadenza before, rather than after the first movement’s recapitulation. Hagner played the cadenza’s arpeggios, harmonics and trills with great virtuosity and exceptional bowing technique, continuing to play arpeggios as the orchestra re-entered (another Mendelssohn innovation). The remainder of the movement featured some nice byplay between soloist and orchestra, with Maazel an ever-thoughtful accompanist, as well as further opportunities for Hagner to show off her skills at dynamic variation and dazzling passagework.

As the first movement ended, a sustained note on the bassoon carried the music onward directly into the Andante, in which Hagner projected the theme in a melancholic singing tone, and with subtly played ornamentation. The finale also followed without pause, with a section marked Allegretto ma non troppo providing a bridge to the Allegro molto vivace, heralded by a brief fanfare. (This tying together of all three movements was yet another distinctive feature of this concerto.) Hagner played the skipping theme with great spirit and again tore through intricate passagework. Particularly lovely was a passage in which the cellos played a counter-subject behind the soloist’s reprise of the main theme. The relentless drive to the concerto’s conclusion was gripping.

Philip MyersAfter the interval, Philip Myers, principal of the Philharmonic’s horn section, gave a stunning performance of Mozart. He produced a magnificent, mellow tone that sang out over the orchestra and resonated beautifully throughout the auditorium – no mean feat in the acoustically challenged Avery Fisher Hall. Myers’s natural phrasing and subtle dynamic variation gave the horn a breathing, pulsing, lifelike presence. Playing with effortless leaps and trills in the opening Allegro maestoso, singing sweetly in the Andante, and frolicking gleefully in the infectious Rondo, Myers made this a performance to remember.

The final work was Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which received a rather disjointed performance. Maazel seemed focused more on the individual Variations than on their relationship to one another and to the work as a whole. The Philharmonic’s musicians had many opportunities to show off their virtuosity, however – the cellos in the statement of the theme and principal Carter Brey’s solos in Variation XII (B.G.N.); the bassoons and contrabassoon in Variation III (R.B.T.); the lush sound of the strings in Variation V (R.P.A.); principal viola Cynthia Phelps’s solo in Variation VI (Ysobel) and again in Variation X (Dorabella); and the clarinet in Variation VIII (W.N.), to mention just a few. The transition from the latter variation to ‘Nimrod’ was handled with subtlety, but that majestic variation was somehow less than breathtaking on this occasion.

Maazel allowed the percussion section free rein not only in Variation VII (Troyte) but also in the brief earlier Variation IV (W.M.B.). In both cases this proved to be too much of a good thing, as the percussionists overpowered even the brass section, which played magnificently throughout the work. The brass was especially effective in the final Variation (XIV, E.D.U.), in which Elgar portrays himself (“Edu” being the pet name by which his wife called him). In the closing bars an organ (electronic) – the instrument marked ad lib in the score – was employed, but it was only slightly perceptible and seemed to make little difference given the high volume level of the rest of the orchestra.

  • Programme also played on 4 January at 11 a.m. in Avery Fisher Hall and on 5 January in The Tilles Center, Long Island
  • New York Philharmonic

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