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Concert Review

Philharmonic scores with Gilbert’s Bruckner, Bronfman’s Bartók

October 24, 2014 at 1:59 pm
New York Philharmonic

Alan Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic in music of Brahms and Bruckner Thursday night. File photo: Chris Lee

Yefim Bronfman makes for an odd piano superstar—entering the stage, his presence does not pack them in at Avery Fisher Hall. Sitting down to play, he hunches over the keyboard. But he is a passionate and refined pianist, and reliably fills Avery Fisher Hall when he plays with the New York Philharmonic. Thursday’s performance was no exception.

His performance of Bartók’s Concerto No. 3 was peculiar—it was singing, it was glittering, even too much so. Granted, this concerto doesn’t exhibit the brooding darkness of some earlier works, like the String Quartet No. 6, or even the Sonata for Solo Violin, from the same period—Its aspect is one of shimmering beauty. But there is also something just the slightest bit sour about the music, and that was missing. Bronfman’s performance was a pleasure to hear, but seemed only to scratch the surface.

Bronfman appropriately brought reverence to the opening chorales of the Allegro religioso, though the piano itself sounded wimpy—Bartók’s big, arching chords rang hollow. Bronfman’s soft playing was luminous, though he was heavy on his sustaining pedal, excessively blurring his rolling runs. His playing was more fleshy in the finale, and he showed tremendous dexterity in more graceful sections. The Philharmonic’s accompaniment was strong, their playing sharp, bristling with excitement.

It is often observed that Alan Gilbert is at his best in contemporary repertoire—he excels at making sense of difficult, unfamiliar material and bringing it to listeners in a way that they can grasp. In Bruckner, too, Gilbert seems to kick into another gear.

Part of the reason for this affinity is that he has a terrific grasp of Bruckner’s sound and weight. He paints colors and textures with a wide brush, focusing more on the feel of Bruckner’s vivid writing than on its moment-to-moment progression. The opening Allegro moderato featured smoldering strings, a more sumptuous sound than we often hear from the hard-edged Philharmonic. The orchestra was a slow-moving but powerful force, like a volcanic flow.

There were a few ensemble mistakes in the Scherzo, and the dynamics weren’t precisely controlled—the winds and brass tended to make startling entrances, coming in a notch or two too high. Still, the music’s tingling sensation thrilled, and the trio section, sensitively phrased, full of yearning, was gorgeous.

Long stretches of bleary-eyed melody in the Adagio were played with warm, affecting sentiment by the strings. As before, when Gilbert had to lean on the winds, results were inconsistent—their sound tended to be cold, even thin. When all forces were at their maximum levels, as is the case for much of this symphony’s finale, the Philharmonic’s playing was broad and majestic.The brass playing here was excellent, full-throated, and the orchestra as a whole seemed infused with strength.

This was a performance that succeeded on the macro level—phrasing and dynamic precision were not its strong points, but shaping and composition were. The two final movements are massive, together making up almost two thirds of the work’s total performance time. But far from making the symphony seem endless, Gilbert always had the end in sight.

Flying under the radar (there was no mention of him in Thursday’s program) was Frank Huang, currently concertmaster of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, auditioning this week for the same role with the Philharmonic. There were no lush solos for him to dig into on Thursday, but for what it’s worth the violins—and all the strings for that matter—sounded especially tight and played with exceptional energy.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.


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