New York Philharmonic/Nelsons [Jonathan Biss plays Beethoven … Shostakovich 5]

Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Jonathan Biss (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 10 February, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Jonathan Biss. Photograph: J KatzIn addition to his recitals and concerto appearances, Jonathan Biss is also an “an enthusiastic chamber musician”. It is all the more puzzling then that in this collaboration Biss was so divorced from what the orchestra was doing; he seemed completely in a world of his own. Within half a bar of his entrances he would often change the tempo, and generally his playing was rushed and lacking in rhythmic precision. Andris Nelsons did his best to stay with him, but still there were instances of tenuous ensemble, especially when Biss hurried to the ends of phrases. The C minor is arguably Beethoven’s most serious and profound piano concerto, but it emerged as a rather perfunctory exercise.

Andris Nelsons. Photograph: Marco BorggreveFor his New York Philharmonic debut Andris Nelsons (from Latvia and Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) chose the spectacular Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich. Its overwhelming ending automatically guarantees an audience success and a standing ovation, as it did here. However, there was no cogent build-up to this conclusion, as there was little internal overarching structure evident within the whole symphony. Nelsons managed to get technically excellent playing from the Philharmonic, and there were many well-conceived moments. But it progressed from one episode to the next without inexorable reason, much less any sense of the underlying irony of the work. The second movement suffered least from this surface reading, while the Largo sagged; rather than being spellbound, the audience started to fidget and cough.

No doubt Nelsons feels the music deeply, but great conducting demands much more than expressing one’s involvement in an athletic style. Casually dressed in a black shirt clinging to his muscular back, Nelsons’s basic stance was a semi-permanent crouch, out of which he jabbed at the orchestra, swayed, and leapt into the air. Daniel Barenboim once told a student something to the effect that conducting is not showing how much he felt the music, but making the audience feel it. And this kind of wild over-conducting is neither required to get a major orchestra to play well, nor necessarily the most effective method.

Nelsons’s performance brought to mind a program with another Shostakovich Symphony, the Tenth, under Sir Simon Rattle and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in the fall of 2007 at Carnegie Hall. It was preceded by an uninteresting reading of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra under an equally effusive Gustavo Dudamel. However, Rattle, with minimal movement and great focus, produced a staggering performance which transformed the orchestra. Sometimes less is more, but most important, at the core there has to be a thorough understanding of the work as a whole, missing here.

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