Brisk Mozart, bland Brahms in a mixed Concertgebouw stand at Carnegie Hall

Fri Feb 15, 2019 at 2:53 pm

Daniel Harding conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Julian Hargreaves

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which played the first of two concerts in its current New York visit Thursday night in Carnegie Hall, is presently in an unfamiliar state: transition. The distinguished ensemble from Amsterdam, which has had only six chief conductors in its 130-year history, is presently looking for a seventh to replace Daniele Gatti, who stepped down last August amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

On Thursday, performing Schumann, Mozart and Brahms under the English conductor Daniel Harding, the temporarily leaderless orchestra sounded somewhat out of balance and tentative at times. In particular, the strings sounded thin, underpowered and overmatched by the woodwinds for much of the night.

The visiting conductor quite understandably conducted with large, general gestures, trusting these storied musicians to get the details right in the familiar works, but in this case a bit more micromanagement from him might have supported them better.

In any case, before one could sample the undiluted sound of the Concertgebouw there was a bit of developmental business to take care of. For the performance of Schumann’s Manfred Overture, players from the Dutch orchestra were joined by a roughly equal number of teenage musicians from the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, a project of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.

The audience took this digression in good humor and warmly applauded the young players as they walked onstage to take their seats next to the veterans. Harding led the mixed ensemble in a good if “correct” account of Schumann’s volatile overture. A more seasoned band likely could have put more emotional charge under this composer’s mood swings, but as the evening went on it appeared that the tides of emotion weren’t this conductor’s strong suit anyway.

In the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, Harding’s big-picture, move-it-along approach had him conducting one beat to a bar. The performance was nicely shaped in long arcs, but the composer’s emotionally complex landscape sped by as if seen from a bullet train. Still, the movement is marked Allegro molto, and one could argue Harding was only taking the composer at his word.

Similarly, Andante means “going,” and this one certainly “went” on Thursday night. But it sounded steady, not rushed, and there was time to appreciate the music’s many felicities of woodwind-string dialogue and blending. Here as elsewhere in the symphony, Harding took all the indicated repeats, so one could catch details missed the first time around.

Several “minuets” by Beethoven are really speedy scherzos, and Harding extended that precedent backward to the Menuetto of this symphony, ignoring the Allegretto marking and taking its outer sections at a flying, one-to-a-bar clip, then slowing way down for the rustic Trio. It was an interesting experiment, but one missed the stomp of the bass, the sober Handel-style counterpoint, and most of all the contrast with the Allegro assai last movement.

As a result, the finale sounded slower than usual (though it wasn’t) and the tender second theme slower still, though distinguished by softened strings and a creamy clarinet. The drastic rhythmic disruption that begins the development was brushed off as a momentary annoyance, and this usually stormy section unfolded neatly, in orderly sequences. Fortunately, Mozart’s intensifying passages in the recapitulation lit a fire under conductor and players, and the vehement coda brought the symphony to a satisfying conclusion.

The orchestra changed into a whole different sonic outfit for the opening bars of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor—warm bass and woodwinds cushioning the sensuous sighs of the strings. As the movement went on, however, a bit of the rhythmic bounce of the Mozart performance would have been welcome to hold all the slurs and slithers together.

The imbalance of bright winds and undernourished strings contributed to a somewhat disoriented feeling. Returning in the recapitulation, however, the themes sounded more energized and persuasive than before, and another fierce coda capped the movement well.

The constant question in the long, episodic Andante moderato was, Can you hear the strings?  The entire section’s pizzicato was blotted out by two bassoons in the opening bars, and a similar fate awaited the cellos’ vibrant second theme, this time at the hands of woodwind chords and a violin descant.

A kind of “now this, now this” routine settled in during both the Andante and the wacky scherzo that followed. Harding kept on beating, and the sections followed each other in the order prescribed in the score. The Andante was well played page by page, but lacked an emotional through line to make it “go.”  The Allegro giocoso needed just the opposite—more interruptions, as the composer constantly changed horses and rode off in another direction.

It seemed odd that a conductor who had been so preoccupied with drawing the long line of a Mozart movement did not sustain the momentum of Brahms’s passacaglia finale. A theme and 32 variations in tiny 8-bar units needs sustained tension and energy to get it to the finish line, but Harding frequently dropped his arms and let the playing go slack.

Variation followed variation without much rhyme or reason. Even the change from the minor key to the major, always a milepost in this type of piece, went virtually unnoted. But then a bold return of the theme in the trombones gave the music a jolt of energy, and eventually yet another powerful coda saved the day.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performs music of Beethoven, Strauss, and Connesson 8 p.m. Friday at Carnegie Hall.; 212-247-7800.

3 Responses to “Brisk Mozart, bland Brahms in a mixed Concertgebouw stand at Carnegie Hall”

  1. Posted Feb 16, 2019 at 9:36 am by M Lana Sheer

    wright, you are WRONG.
    I have been listening to Brahms’ 4th for over 50 years, including live Bernstein. This was one of the most nuanced and superb readings of it.
    What do they pay you by the word? or Italian word?
    The orchestra thought it was superb as did several of my musical friend.

  2. Posted Feb 16, 2019 at 10:09 am by Stephen Essrig

    Mostly correct. We did think the finale in the Brahms was well played and well paced. The rest was as you said, and the orchestra, which I have never thought belonged in the pantheon of today’s great ensembles was especially ragged, although it could have been Harding’s poor balances.

    I was told last year at a Janson’s BRSO concert, which was phenomenal, that he resigned from the Concertgebouw but kept his other relationships because he didn’t get along with the members. Since he is the preeminent orchestral virtuoso conductor, at least as to the ability to elicit fantastic playing (The Oslo, The Pittsburgh, The BRSO, it perhaps was confirmed by the other night. Maybe it wasn’t all Harding’s fault.

  3. Posted Feb 16, 2019 at 11:18 am by John Leopold

    You must have been in a parallel universe. We attended both concerts and were thoroughly impressed from start to finish each night. On Thursday night, the tempos were spot on; the emphases were thoughtful; the solo portions (especially in the Brahms) were spectacular. And the horn section is second to none.

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