Weilerstein’s thrilling Saint-Saëns powers Romantic Philharmonic program

Fri Nov 22, 2019 at 12:04 pm
Alisa Weilerstein performed Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with Jakub Hrůša conducting the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

The program that the New York Philharmonic presented Thursday night appeared fairly routine on the page, with three Romantic works. But even the routine can be rewarding, as the orchestra showed with their refined playing under the baton of Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša.

Two Romantic symphonies on one concert isn’t common outside of the single-composer-binge model, though the first on Thursday’s program, Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 in B minor, is on the briefer side for the era, at twenty-eight minutes. From the beginning of this symphony, the Philharmonic sounded especially warm on Thursday, with a dark, heavy sound in the stomping theme at the start of the Allegro. Their muscular playing and firm gesture suited the drama and distinctively Russian character of the music.

A great strength of Hrůša’s conducting was his ability to draw immediate contrasts, not just of pace and volume, but of texture, as well; this quality was especially evident in the Scherzo, where the rapid, tittering pulse of the winds was set against the bucolic brightness of the trio section. In the Andante, the stunning horn solo by Leelanee Sterrett evoked a wide vista soaked in sunshine, before a cold string tremolo brought a sudden change to winter.

Hrůša’s rendering of the last movement was especially striking: being a Russian finale, this movement abounds in pounding rhythms, bright sonority, and crashing percussion. In this performance, though, it was more than a mere romp; there was an elegance to its vibrant dance, even through all the noise.

The more substantial symphony, Dvořák’s No. 6 in D major, was less successful, at least initially. The opening movement featured expansive sonority and impeccable balance, but the sense of drive that had kept the Borodin moving forward was lacking. Here, the wash of sound felt more static, only finding its momentum in the shining peaks of the coda. Hrůša was on better footing in the Adagio, bringing a sense of almost martial grandeur in the initial tempo that made the airy pastoral sections feel serene by comparison.

The strongest movement of the four was the Scherzo, with its pounding Furiant dance, where Hrůša ably managed the many interweaving voices as they competed in their contrasting rhythms and textures. The finale thrilled as it built from the excited hush of the opening statement, cascading upwards into twirling exuberance.

Taken together, these two pieces accounted for more than an hour of music, but it was Saint-Saëns’s brief Cello Concerto No. 1 that left the strongest impression. Closing the first half of the concert, Alisa Weilerstein gave a hot-blooded reading that thoroughly explored the emotional possibilities of the piece.

Weilerstein instantly showed the ferociousness of her artistic spirit, pressing into the rhapsodic opening flourishes to inject fire into her sound. The dominant feature of the opening Allegro is emotive intensity, but Weilerstein found space for playful wit in her playing, as well. The Allegretto was served well by the natural, song-like sensibility of her phrasing, lending sensitivity to an otherwise simple melodic line.

The searing passion of the finale found Weilerstein back in her most comfortable element. A little sluggishness of articulation in slurred runs hardly mattered as she captured the deep, aching longing central to the concerto.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at David Geffen Hall. nyphil.org

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