Zinman, Batiashvili and Philharmonic make old chestnuts new again

Fri Feb 06, 2015 at 12:14 pm

David Zinman led the New York Philharmonic Thursday night.

Thursday’s New York Philharmonic program is exactly the sort that many musicologists love to hate. Tuneful twentieth-century chestnuts attract disdain in certain circles, and to pair two of them on a subscription program will cause some eyes to roll.
Granted, Christopher Rouse’s Iscariot, which opened the program, couldn’t exactly be called a chestnut. Right from the gunshot percussion at the opening (which made the entire audience jump out of their seats) this is an uneasy, psychologically intense piece. It moves slowly, but beneath its bleak surface is a tightly-wound tension that feels as though it could explode at any moment. David Zinman drew pure ice out of the orchestra, leading a taut performance that offered more of a challenge than your everyday concert overture.

But as “Late Romantics,” Samuel Barber and Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose works headlined Thursday’s concert, are favorite targets for the scorn of the cognoscenti, “reactionary” composers who failed to ride the wave of modernism with their edgier contemporaries.

The critical view of Barber has softened somewhat over time, but his idiosyncratic Violin Concerto remains too sweet for some ears. The piece seems almost tailor-made for Lisa Batiashvili, the soloist for these concerts. It begins with a burst of sunlight, the most idyllic opening of any of the major violin concerti. Much of the first movement is pure lyricism, and Batiashvili, a master of her instrument’s colors, is capable of producing silken tone with anyone.

But there is room, too, in this concerto for the intensity that is the hallmark of Batiashvili’s style. The crackling warmth and unbridled passion with which she approached the first two movements made this a beautifully personal interpretation—far removed from but every bit as valid as the crystalline clarity we’d expect from Hilary Hahn, or the dreamy sighing we might hear from Joshua Bell.

If there was a chink in her armor, it was the finale, where she tended to rush ahead, but it’s hard to make this “Presto in moto perpetuo” much more than a frenzied, manic dash for the finish line. Her electric playing allowed this movement to be the furious blaze that it is. Zinman and the Philharmonic nearly came apart in this notoriously difficult last movement, but their playing in the early movements gleamed.

That vibrant sound lingered for Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2—anyone who wrote off the Rach as a candy wrapper to end the evening was sorely mistaken, as Zinman led the Philharmonic to some of their very finest playing in this beloved staple. Suspense and drama were kept high as he adeptly varied the orchestra’s sound, adjusting weight and volume to bring out the movement’s homesick nostalgia, as well as the whirling power of its closing bars.

Sharp articulation gave the second movement a harsh, wintry energy , and the Adagio, though slightly discombobulated at the start, showed a deep, lush sound, almost Gershwinesque in its Hollywood sweep and glow. The tapered, gossamer ending perfectly set up the explosion of balloons and confetti that starts the finale. Thursday might not have had the weighty authority of an all–Shostakovich concert, but the Philharmonic’s energetic playing reminded us that there is absolutely a place for pure, unapologetic beauty in the concert hall.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. nyphil.org

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