Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Cynthia Phelps & Rebecca Young (violas)
New York Philharmonic
Daniel Boico [Gubaidulina]
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 14 April, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
One couldn’t help but be concerned that Daniel Boico, the New York Philharmonic’s Assistant Conductor, would be conducting Sofia Gubaidulina’s Two Paths because Kurt Masur was “suffering from a temporary eye infection”. Masur himself entered slowly to very enthusiastic applause; he appeared far more pallid and thin than he had in recent Philharmonic appearances, and as he conducted the opening noted of Liszt’s Les Préludes, the tremor in his left hand was far more pronounced than previously. But from that first downbeat, the Philharmonic sounded like a completely different orchestra – particularly the strings, deployed in split-violin layout with double basses on the left, taking on a deeper, heftier sound than one hears from current music director Alan Gilbert. Despite a turnover in players since Masur’s tenure, particularly in the wind section, it was very close to that familiar ‘Leipzig-am-Hudson’ sound that Masur had cultivated, a sonority that fits his direct, unaffected approach to Liszt like a glove. Masur went to some lengths to make sure that inner voices sometimes buried could be heard clearly, particularly in the central Allegro. The quieter passages were played with a surprising combination of beauty and assertiveness, and the final section was thrilling in its intensifying excitement and powerful culmination.
Gubaidulina’s Two Paths for a pair of violas and orchestra was composed and premiered in 1999 specifically for the Philharmonic and its first-desk players, Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young, which Masur conducted. The title refers to the two different paths – earthly and spiritual – chosen by the daughters of Lazarus in the New Testament. The music is cast as a theme with seven variations; the work’s thematic and harmonic material is built almost entirely on half-step melodic figurations, lending it a sense of inexorable and unresolved tension. Much of Phelps’s music is in the viola’s stratosphere of ethereal and delicate harmonics, while Young digs in with contrasting material in the instrument’s lower range; it’s no surprise that the two soloists blend well and with the orchestra, and that they play the sometimes difficult, dissonant music with compelling passion. Boico’s impressive, lucid conducting summoned shifting moods, yet the performance presented a work more meditative and assured than when it was premiered, and with far more detail and dynamic contrast. It’s a pity that a few members of the audience marred the mood with disruptive coughing, rustling of programs, a ringing phone, and a rude door slam.
Masur’s sober, controlled approach to tempos and structure in Brahms’s First Symphony would be no surprise to anyone familiar with his approach, yet the Philharmonic musicians were very physically engaged in the music-making. Masur eschews whip-crack articulation that characterized post-war American orchestral sound, but the playing in the first movement – in which Masur takes a more moderate tempo than most conductors – was startlingly declamatory, particularly from the strings, as was the second’s balance of forward momentum with just the right balance of sentimentality. The third was characteristically bucolic, with the trio and its emphatic momentum and crescendos providing strong contrast. Masur’s approach to the introductory material of the finale may have been steadily paced but was hardly purist or dogmatic with its sophisticated phrasing and balances; the seamless playing of the horn and flute melody before the introduction of the movement’s ‘big tune’ was as good as I’ve ever heard it, and the abundant momentum and contrast from the main body of the movement to the coda was simply startling. Masur seemed very touched by the long and loud ovation he received, and he deserved it.