Serenade in C for Strings, Op.48
Violin Concerto, Op.14
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Augustin Hadelich (violin)
New York String Orchestra
Reviewed by: Fred Kirshnit
Reviewed: 28 December, 2014
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
It was not Brahms’s best moment. In a fit of pique, he withdrew Joseph Joachim from the premiere of his Violin Concerto, even though his dear friend had been the technical adviser during its composition. Brahms gave the score to another violinist to peruse. The fellow, reacting to the amazingly tender introduction to the Adagio, yet with no part for the soloist, asked: “With so much beautiful music going on, what am I supposed to do?”. (Joachim, the Concerto’s dedicatee, did give the Brahms its first performance.)
Samuel Barber lived through a similar experience. Accepting a commission to compose a violin concerto, he was dismayed when the proposed soloist, Iso Briselli (a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music), disliked the finale, pronouncing it too short and unrelated to the previous movements. Barber declined to budge. Fortuitously, the piece came to the attention of Eugene Ormandy, who gave Barber’s unaltered work, an American classic, with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Albert Spalding as soloist. It may be a bit much to state that it is the greatest violin concerto composed in America, since both the Schoenberg and Korngold examples were written there, but it is the best by any US-born composer.
Barber’s Violin Concerto was the centerpiece of this matinee by the New York String Orchestra, which traditionally rings out the old year at Carnegie Hall as the culmination of a two-week seminar, a project begun over 45 years ago by Alexander Schneider. His hand-picked successor, Jaime Laredo, has been shepherding his flock of 16- to 23-year-olds since the early 1990s. Retaining the original name of the ensemble is deceptive, as this is now a full symphony orchestra – and there are usually several professionals who are alumni having a reunion.
Of the Barber, Augustin Hadelich presented a well-played and carefully thought out iteration, notable for a powerfully declarative sound. In contrast to the opening movement, in which the violinist plays the lyrical first theme immediately, the Andante begins (much like the Adagio of Brahms’s Concerto) with a prolonged oboe solo. Hadelich employed his waiting time to muster considerable forces, projecting a romanticism that blended well with the orchestra’s exceptionally bottom-heavy sonority. Hadelich was skillfully dexterous during the Presto finale and ended the piece in a burst of excitement. As an encore, he offered Paganini’s Caprice No.24, the spawn for so many sets of Variations, by Brahms, Rachmaninov, Blacher, Andrew Lloyd Webber…
The afternoon began with a zaftig (pleasingly plump) reading of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings that benefitted from full-bodied timbre. This concert was, in large measure, an exercise in string discipline, so it was not surprising that the piece written exclusively for these instruments was the most impressive.
No other composition, indeed no other work of art, acts as such a magical anodyne as does Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. Balancing precariously but perfectly between the worlds of program and absolute music – I can still hear Leonard Bernstein discussing “those damn cuckoos” at his Norton lectures at Harvard – its shared world premiere with the mighty Fifth Symphony (and other works) testifies to the supreme greatness and communicative abilities of this composer.
Once again the strings performed well, but they dominated so much that there was a crucial balance problem. The ultimate result was less Beethovenian than it should have been, the thunderstorm, to cite but one example, lacking in atmospheric power and instrumental variety. This imbalance was reminiscent of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy at the Academy of Music, where there was often a subsuming of woodwinds and brass. Similarly, Laredo’s conducting simply had too many strings attached.