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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Concert Review: Out of the Darkness

The Philharmonic premieres Magnus Lindberg's Second Piano Concerto.
Piano brawl: Yefim Bronfman does battle with giants.
Photo taken at the Barbican, London © Vienna Philharmonic.
Manhattan concert-goers got a preview of the New York Philharmonic's planned tour program this week, with a set of subscription concerts featuring the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Second Piano Concerto. This concert is the last premiere of Mr. Lindberg's three-year term as the orchestra's composer-in-residence.

The somnolent audience for Friday's 11am concert were snapped awake by the opening chords of Dvorak's Carnival Overture. This is a bold splotch of orchestral color that epitomizes this composer's breezy, folk-driven style. Alan Gilbert led the work with energy and rhythmic drive, spotlighting the talented wind and string players.

In the three years of his Philharmonic residency, the brilliant Mr. Lindberg has confounded, even maddened subscribers with works like Kraft (played with the aid of auto parts) or the shimmering Aura. This Second Piano Concerto is relaxed and even genial by those standards, but at three movements played without a pause, it is a workout for the soloist and the listener.

The soloist was Yefim Bronfman, who approached the piano as if he is about to engage in some heroic athletic struggle. The concerto begins in a Stygian darkness that evokes the long winter nights of Mr. Lindberg's home country. The piano speaks first, rumbling forth a series of low tonal clusters that germinate from the bottom strings of the instrument. Themes and rhythms develop from these clusters, supported by Mr. Lindberg's trademark use of complex percussion accompaniment.

The main theme of the movement and the two that follow are almost neo-classical in nature, with the pianist playing athletic figures against a shifting texture of orchestration. The last pages of the finale emerge into sunlight, a brassy blaze that is supported by the sonorities of trombones. Mr. Bronfman's performance here was not one of dazzling virtuosity or filigree, but an intense, committed one as the piano became equal partner to the orchestra, placing musicianship before showmanship.

Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony is a perpetual crowd-pleaser, despite a program that deals with the composer's depression, despair and possibly his failed attempt at marriage. The morning crowd didn't seem to care about the composer's sex life, however, preferring to focus on the stentorian motto theme and the sweet sound of the Philharmonic strings in full flight.

Alan Gilbert led a muscular performance of the work. If any criticism can be levied, it would be that his interpretation of the score did not mine the depths of emotional angst that other conductors might draw from the Fourth. However, the broad-shouldered Russian rhythm of the scherzo was enjoyable, as was the pizzicato playing of the strings in the third movement. The finale, which ends with a reprise of the motto theme, was an impressive effort of brass playing from the fine Philharmonic horns. 

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