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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Concert Review: Nordic Combined at the Philharmonic

Alan Gilbert. Photo by Chris Lee
At the last concert before the New York Philharmonic unveils their 2011-2012 season, Alan Gilbert led a vital, intriguing combination of Beethoven, Sibelius, and Carl Nielsen. The concert featured two guest appearances from soprano Karita Mattila, who sang works by Beethoven and Sibelius while wearing two different gowns.

Beethoven's Eighth Symphony is one of his shortest and least-played. This cheerful little piece with its far-ranging opening theme allowed Mr. Gilbert to show his considerable skill in classical repertory. As the second theme entered, the Philharmonic's music director played Beethoven's little game of "hide-the-theme" with great glee. The second movement, with its repeating, metronomic rhythm was played with precision. The Minuet moved with the courtly precision of another century and the bucolic Rondo allowed the orchestra's winds and strings a chance to stretch.

Ms. Mattila then joined the orchestra for "Ah! Perfido!", a Beethoven stand-alone concert aria. Beethoven was a master pianist and orchestrator, but less skilled at writing for the voice. Ms. Mattila produced hearty tones, singing the aria's climactic passage with a full forte that overpowered the orchestra.

She and Mr. Gilbert sounded far more balanced in the three songs by Sibelius that opened the second half of the concert. These works, set to texts in the Finnish composer's preferred language of Swedish, were sang with great care and naturalism by the soprano, expertly accompanied. She ended her appearance with a brief encore, an a capella rendition of a traditional Finnish folk song. It was sung with great charm and emotion.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) a tonal symphonist from Denmark whose six quirky works in that genre provide symphony lovers with a great deal of enjoyment. Although Feb. 1 was the anniversary of Nielsen's Symphony No. 4, (The Inextinguishable) Mr. Gilbert programmed the Second instead. Entitled The Four Tempraments, its movements explore four different aspects of the human personality in accordance with the archaic medical belief that the body is ruled by four "humors": choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine.

Those are the subtitles of the four movements of this brassy, engaging work which was led with great flair by Mr. Gilbert. The Philharmonic's famous brass section, led by Joseph Alessi and Philip Myers, had a field day with Nielsen's muscular choleric movement, charging pell-mell over a rich texture of strings. Mr. Gilbert conducted the phlegmatic movement with great lethargy, showing that he got the composer's joke. The melancholic adagio produced some of the evening's most beautiful playing. The sanguine finale roared forth, presenting the extroverted, raging side of the personality with a full-blooded performance.

This concert marks the start of a Nielsen initiative by Mr. Gilbert, who intends to revive interest in the composer by programming all six of his symphonies in coming seasons. If Tuesday night's performance is any indication, this bold move will provide Philharmonic audiences with something to look forward to in the seasons to come.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats