Znaider, Wang and Philharmonic provide rare Tchaikovsky, poised Elgar

Fri May 11, 2018 at 1:18 pm
 Jian Wang performed Elgar's Cello Concerto with conductor Nikolaj Zaider and the New York Philharmonic THursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Jian Wang performed Elgar’s Cello Concerto with conductor Nikolaj Zaider and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

As everybody knows, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was the composer of three symphonies, numbered 4 through 6.

To hear Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 “Winter Dreams” for the first time, as most people in the New York Philharmonic’s audience were likely doing Thursday night, is like finding out you have a sibling in another city you never knew about. The face is familiar, even if you’ve never seen it before.

That was partly because conductor Nikolaj Znaider and his musicians gave this “sin of my sweet youth,” as the composer later called it, the same passionate, full-bore treatment one expects for the more mature Big Three.

It was even more because when the 25-year-old government-worker-turned-composer began the piece in 1866 nobody (especially he) knew what a Tchaikovsky symphony sounded like, and when he got up from the task nine months later an unmistakable musical idiom had been born.

At the very start, the sound of a bassoon doubling the flute on a Russian-sounding theme put this composer’s hallmark on the music. After that, it was all there: the soulful folk melodies, the fanciful play of woodwinds, the soaring strings, the explosions of brass, the feverish strettos and dramatic pauses, even the contrapuntal fugato passages for intensifying or humorous effect. (Also the occasional echo of Beethoven or even Rossini, pardonable for a rookie symphonist.)

All these elements would be better integrated, to a more profound purpose, in the later symphonies. But in Znaider’s imaginative performance, three-quarters of an hour with this youthful effort proved to be time well spent.

The first movement’s tempo marking Allegro tranquillo and title “Daydreams of a Winter Journey” seemed to promise a mellow sleigh ride, but with this composer it was of course anything but. He inverted the usual characteristics of sonata form, making the central development section the smooth part while filling the initial exposition with dramatic twists and turns.

Although Tchaikovsky’s music was later accused by Russian critics of being too cosmopolitan, it would be hard to imagine a more Russian-sounding piece than this symphony’s Andante cantabile, “Land of Gloom, Land of Mist.”  Muted strings painted a vast, desolate winter landscape while a solo oboe (with this composer’s instantly recognizable flute highlights) sang a soulful tune. Other Russian-style melodies followed, often to delicate pizzicato accompaniment, none of them “developed,” but each savored for its intrinsic beauty.

Actually, the movement that was most like a sleigh ride was the swinging, bouncing Scherzo. Schumann was the model for many a Romantic symphonist, and he was no doubt the godfather of this movement’s droll rhythmic play, grouping the beats unpredictably in twos or threes. The Philharmonic’s strings may not be the lushest or silkiest on the planet, but they did glide neatly through this charming movement like steel runners through snow.

Tchaikovsky opened the finale with the characteristic sound of a low, growling bassoon, Andante lugubre (a foretaste of the opening of his Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique”). Conductor Znaider resisted all temptations to rush the ensuing Allegro maestoso (“majestic”), taking it fast but right in time, the orchestra sounding bold and very together, to exhilarating effect.

Thursday’s concise program clocked in at just over an hour and a half including intermission, dispensing with preliminaries and going straight to the concerto—Elgar’s Cello Concerto, to be exact, with cellist Jian Wang as the cool, self-possessed soloist.

Undeniably rooted in the composer’s anguish at the bloodshed and personal losses of World War I, and the sweeping away of the Edwardian world in which he had thrived, this concerto has occasioned many a slashing bow stroke and much shaking of locks by cellists. One wonders, however, if the composer himself might have preferred Wang’s stiff-upper-lip approach to the work, which seemed a bit cold at first but eventually won a listener over with its dignity and seriousness. 

Wang’s round and well-projected tone could have stood up to a more robust orchestral partnership than Znaider provided in many cases; in particular, some nice woodwind interactions with the soloist faded into the background. In contrast, when the soloist dropped out for a moment, Znaider unleashed the orchestra in disproportionately huge forte passages.

The scherzo-style Allegro molto was smartly executed by soloist and orchestra, although the cellist’s cool demeanor didn’t convey much of the music’s playful spirit. And while one admired the cellist’s long line and dynamic control in the Adagio, the movement’s underlying loss and grief were kept well below the surface, requiring quite an effort of imagination on the part of the listener (not necessarily a bad thing).

Soloist and orchestra brought off Elgar’s unconventional finale beautifully, beginning with an upbeat theme, light and snappy, then shifting gears into a Wagnerian elegy with its seemingly endless cello melody, and closing with perhaps the shortest and most bracing fast coda in any concerto. By this time, the audience seemed to have warmed up to Wang’s style of playing, calling him back to the stage three times for bows.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. nyphil.org; 212-875-5656.

2 Responses to “Znaider, Wang and Philharmonic provide rare Tchaikovsky, poised Elgar”

  1. Posted May 12, 2018 at 9:04 am by DorothyT

    We were fortunate enough to hear violinist Nikolaj Znaider play Sibelius last week. He gave more than a brilliant technical performance then. Who could have expected him to carry over his artistry and convey his deep love of the music also in this his conducting debut with the Philharmonic? Too many conductors seem to have rehearsed in front of a mirror instead of the orchestra.

    We’ve often noted that the musicians don’t necessarily look at the conductor. Last night was different: Znaider was one with them and they with him.

    We followed some of the musicians out of the hall last night and heard one say, “He’s the closest we’ve seen since Bernstein.”

  2. Posted May 13, 2018 at 6:38 pm by C, W , Hirsch

    David Wright’s review provides that rare critique that both informs and gives concertgoers a balanced analysis of a concert. I attended this Philharmonic concert and was struck–again–by the failure of a guest conductor to take account of the problematic accoustics of this hall. Clearly there are passages of some compositions where the conductor needs to tone down the original instructions of the composer. This program was no exception, although the evening was enjoyable.

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