Hough, Philharmonic go introspective with Beethoven’s “Emperor”
Wednesday night’s concert of the New York Philharmonic under music director Alan Gilbert featured a not-very-imperious emperor and a symphonic enigma beyond the dreams of Edward Elgar.
Pianist Stephen Hough gave Beethoven’s robust Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major (“Emperor”) the kind of introspective reading usually reserved for its more lyrical sibling, the Concerto No. 4. And Brahms’s Third Symphony, as it so often does, stubbornly refused to give up its secrets despite a respectable performance by Gilbert and his players.
Of course Hough’s piano flourishes opened the concerto in grand style, and Gilbert gave full symphonic breadth to the long orchestral exposition (no “waiting room” effect here). After that, however, while Gilbert continued with splendiferous tuttis, Hough took every opportunity to pull back and display his feathery leggiero touch, his elegant chord voicing, and tone that ranged from brightly singing to veiled.
The resulting contrast was agreeable, and served as a reminder that the title “Emperor,” irresistible as it is in this case, didn’t originate with Beethoven, and an all-lights-on approach isn’t the only one that works with this music.
The brief interlude that is the second movement was made briefer still by Gilbert’s interpreting the marking Adagio un poco mosso (Slow, with a little motion) as something more like a brisk Andante. Hough continued his introspective ways, exploring shades of piano and pianissimo, as if the music were an unfolding improvisation rather than a rendering of a score.
One wished some of that sensation had lasted into the finale. In the first phrase of that movement’s theme, Hough put a crashing sforzando where the composer’s notation had implied a slight stress, and the performance proceeded from there with a kind of grim determination instead of the gaiety the music needed.
Beethoven takes some rather long walks in the woods in this movement, and without a feeling of fantasy and unpredictability the pages of modulating scale passages can grow tiresome, as they did Wednesday. But in the movement’s second theme, the pianist provided some welcome lighter moments, sensitively supported by Gilbert and the orchestra.
After intermission, Philharmonic president Matthew VanBesien came onstage to read some acknowledgements and introduce guests, including eleven students from Music Academy of the West who were sitting in with the orchestra for the Brahms performance. One wouldn’t normally mention such ceremonials in a review, but in this case the presence of visiting young musicians might help explain the difficulty Gilbert had with coordination and balances in the symphony’s first movement.
Anyway, thank goodness for the repeat sign at the end of the first movement’s exposition, because Gilbert, the Philharmonic, and their guests went back and played the whole thing again, with much improved results.
Still, Brahms’s Third was perhaps not the best choice for a hospitality piece, since even in ideal circumstances it’s challenging for an orchestra and conductor to find an expressive line that flows through the piece’s volatile episodes, raging one moment and caressing the next. It’s even harder when one is micro-conducting the details, as Gilbert sometimes did on Wednesday, possibly to bring the visitors along.
The clarinet had a tough time in the second movement, its opening theme masked by the accompaniment of horns (no surprise there—Gilbert seems to have a Manhattanite’s ability not to hear horns honking) and bassoons, and its later theme taken over by a bassoon that was supposed to be discreetly doubling in the background. In general, wind imbalances made the movement’s line hard to follow.
Things looked up in the third movement, where, rather than try to figure out the tempo marking Poco allegretto (literally, “slightly a little bit fast”), Gilbert just gave the music a natural swing and surge, and a listener could relax and go with the flow for a few minutes.
By the finale, the orchestra was sounding more pulled together and balanced. The opening bars murmured mysteriously, the fortes pounced, and the Brahmsian fist-shaking was fierce and incisive. In Brahms’s day, this seemingly incoherent bundle of shouts and muttering, with its oddly wan conclusion, had even opponents of “program music” reaching for metaphors and stories, or psychoanalyzing the composer.
One would like to say this music is well understood today, but it still isn’t, and it’s a rare performance that affords more than a glimpse of what Brahms was getting at. On Wednesday, a bit more grace in the second theme would have been a welcome contrast with all the rage around it, and maybe unlocked a meaning or two. But among all the things Elgar may have envied about his contemporary Brahms, the ability to keep a secret was right up there.
The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. nyphil.org; 212-875-5656.