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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Concert Review: Achilles' Last Stand

Alan Gilbert takes in the challenges of Beethoven and Brahms.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The pianist Stephen Hough joined the Mew York Philharmonic this week.
Photo by Hiroyuki Ito courtesy Harrison Parrott
In his time at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, music director Alam Gilbert has left a legacy of innovation and a commitment to modernity. However, his performances of warhorses by both Beethoven and Brahms have brought middling or muddled results. On Wednesday night, Mr. Gilbert got another chance to test his mettle with this music, leading the former’s Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor") and the latter's Third Symphony at David Geffen Hall.


In the Beethoven concerto, Mr. Gilbert's collaborator was Steven Hough, the accurate, and seemingly unflappable British pianist. Mr. Hough is a yearly visitor here, and his unruffled stage presence has a dry, scholarly rectitude without ever being dull. His playing says exactly what's on the printed score paper without flourishes or flash--exactly what is needed for a sophisticated work like this.

In some ways his pairing with Mr. Gilbert seems like a bit of an odd couple, although the artist were on the same page in the opening flourish of the first movement. They explored the deep reaches of this long Sonata Allegro, which featured Beethoven leaving the conventions of the 18th century concert hall behind for the new sonic realms that he would transit in the last years of his life. 

Motto themes grew out of each other in an organic whole with melodic ideas tossed from woodwinds to low strings to piano and back again in a joyful game of round-robin catch. This bold opening movement gave way to a quiet final section, with Mr. Hough navigating the pianissimo passages with ease and always choosing the standard cadenzas over the various extant alternatives,

Mr. Gilbert indulged in a slow tempo in the central movement, letting the folk-like string drones and commenting piano engage in friendly conversation. Then the Rondo began and it was back to business, as conductor and pianist led the orchestra in an exploration of Beethoven’s genius for variation and quirky sense of humor. This move,eat features the piano engaging n quarrels with almost every musician in the orchestra, including a few bars of dialogue with the timpani, a combination of forces that was unheard of at the time. Of this works premiere.

The Brahms featured several members of the University of Michigan-based University Musical Society, which currently enjoys a sophisticated relationship with the aPhilharmonic. The presence of the Ann Arbor musicians may have led Mr. Gilbert to bring more vitality and drive to the first movement than he has in performances past. Indeed this wS a standard reading of this familiar movement, with the orchestra under full sail.

In the three latter movements, things got interesting. Here, Mr. Gilbert resisted the temptation to engage in lush colors and Romantic expression. Instead, the conductor opted for some quirks of tempos and phrase that stood just woutside the standard performance practice for this symphony. These provided a fascinating, involving experience for conductor, musicians and orchestra, and served as pointers toward the ideas that the Second Viennese School drew from the writing of Brahms. 

Despite his stature among 19the century Romantic composers, Brahms is sometimes seen as a dead end in music history but this performance proved that he was the way forward for ears sophisticated enough to understand what he was attempting to express in the expansive mournful Adagio, the gallows-humor Allegretto and that odd finale, in which a set of sophisticated orchestral variations are the keys to unlocking his particular sense of humor and play.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.