Violin Concerto in A, K219
Symphony No.5 in C-sharp minor
James Ehnes (violin)
The MET Orchestra
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 30 May, 2018
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This MET Orchestra concert opened with Mozart’s K219 Violin Concerto with James Ehnes, the delicate character of his expression somewhat at odds with the bold introduction conjured by Gianandrea Noseda. But as the work progressed this contrast became less apparent as attention was focused on the beauty of Ehnes’s light touch and graceful fluidity, which particularly informed the slow movement. However, the contrast between the heavy-handed accompaniment and the pleasantly lithe and tastefully subdued violin-playing returned: Noseda sped up markedly during the Finale’s so-called ‘Turkish’ episode forcing it to become overly dramatic, even coarse. But in its ultimate reprise, the appealing gentility of the rondo theme cast aside such overbearing boisterousness, providing a charming conclusion. As encores Ehnes offered two very different movements by Bach: a brilliantly executed Finale of the C-major Sonata, BWV 1005, and an expressive rendition of the Andante of the A-minor Sonata, BWV 1003.
Noseda’s approach to Mahler’s Fifth combined nervous energy with brash, over-the-top dynamic levels within a basically straightforward reading. From the exceedingly loud opening trumpet tattoo, the opening movement was devoid of the tragic, funereal quality that should dominate and the abrupt and raging reaction to the mournful main theme was undermined by a moderated demeanor. For the most part, the movement went by without making clear the character of its dramatic import. Noseda opted for a strong final pizzicato (marked sforzando), which some commentators have argued has been traditionally played too forcefully. Although the frenzied second movement caught fire from its inception and remained vigorous and driven, it often sounded harsh and disorderly, failing to hang together. The climactic chorale, which should generate a sense of Heaven-storming bravado, was merely loud, even if the brass-players distinguished themselves.
Following the pivotal Scherzo, Noseda handled the Adagietto as if in a trance, making little effort to shape its soulful theme or enhance it with any warmth or tenderness. A lively giocoso character gave the Finale a genial quality, making it lighthearted and full of joie de vivre. But as the movement progressed the main tempo became more and more pressed, impelled forward by an edgy vigor out of keeping with the music’s ebullient spirit. Soon the pace became hard-driven. Lacking cohesion and overburdened with unvarying high volume, the reprise of the chorale was made inconsequential, Noseda driving the orchestra with tempestuous speed as if the Devil was after him, and then off to the races, whipping up the coda to a riotous conclusion of high speed and volume. Whether such an approach serves Mahler’s music well is another matter.
The MET Orchestra acquitted itself well for the most part, making every effort to meet Mahler’s challenging requirements despite occasional imprecision. Possibly, the hard-driven tempos combined with the strain of performing at an unremittingly high volume might have taken its toll, but this extremely capable ensemble showed its mettle notwithstanding Noseda’s demands.