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

Fri Oct 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.

3 Responses to “Philharmonic scores with Gilbert’s Bruckner, Bronfman’s Bartók”

  1. Posted Oct 27, 2014 at 6:51 am by Max Wax

    Hi John

    It was an excellent performance. I was surprised. I was not expecting Gilbert to have such a deep and personal grasp of Bruckner’s architecture. The sound was magnificent: I was in row R, central orchestra.
    So far my best B8 live. I have Sinopoli, Salonen and Mehta in my memory. All inferior to Gilbert’s.
    I totally disagree with the Nyt reviewer. Poorly thought and badly written review, by the way.

  2. Posted Oct 27, 2014 at 11:33 am by George J

    Thank you for mentioning Frank Huang. I have heard him live with the Houston Symphony throughout his entire tenure with us. He makes the most difficult parts sound easy. His musicianship is second to none. Our string section, which was already performing at a high level, has improved and can now match any in the world for ensemble, technique, and beauty. He is a rare talent, and any orchestra in the world would be lucky to have him. My hope is he is offered the job. My other hope is he turns it down, and stays in Houston, as I will be most sad to see him leave us. Regardless, I wish him only the very best.

  3. Posted Nov 01, 2014 at 10:06 am by Doug Halfen

    I’m a bit of an aficionado regarding the Bruckner 8th and will admit to having very strong, personal ideas about it; last Saturday’s performance left me feeling rather lukewarm, reminding me that the NYPhil is not an “elite” orchestra “just because it’s the NYPhil.” (I routinely hear and visit both Cleveland and Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh performed a _stunning_ Bruckner 4th last season.)

    With too many ragged entrances and a brass section which pretty much obliterated all of the others whenever it played collectively, as well as a few passages where the sections became glaringly-unglued (especially toward the end of the first movement and in the scherzo), the experience was definitely less-than-satisfying to me.

    (I _do_ agree that the strings sounded marvelous! The timpani was a bit muffled, however — that’s a crime in Bruckner, because those skins should sound powerfully and clearly, even in the gentle rolls.)

    I am also not completely sold on Gilbert’s interpretation; he sounded as if he were _trying_ to make the symphony vibrant and vigorous. The adagio was (thankfully) the most successful movement of all, with plenty of breath and beauty, but the other three movements all proceeded as if they were in a hurry to catch a train — the trio, in particular, felt “off,” because I think that he made it faster than the scherzo sections! And with THREE harps — I could barely hear their parts in the trio and adagio. Eschenbach led a magnificent B8 in DC this past June; he employed only _one_ harp, and it sang with crystal clarity.

    The woodwind performances on Saturday were excellent; they elicited the only “Bravo!” from me during the applause.

    Coincidentally, I heard Gilbert the weekend before in Philly; that concert, with Janacek’s Slavic Mass and works by Sibelius & Dvorak, was a rather marked contrast — Sibelius’ “Nightride & Sunrise” was a bit on the slow side, but it sounded BEAUTIFUL. And the Mass received a sensational treatment. Perhaps I should have heard the orchestras in the reverse order? ;^>

    The Bartok concerto was a first listen for me, and I enjoyed it immensely. I tend to think of Bartok with less “sournerr,” even when it clearly IS present in the music. And I always enjoy Bronfman; he may not be the most delicate pianist where desired, but he has a full, gorgeous tone and plays with oodles of strength. The orchestra acquitted itself wonderfully in accompaniment.

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