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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Concert Review: The Grand Master

Bernard Haitink returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bernard Haitink celebrates 60 years on the podium this season.
Photo by Creutziger courtesy New York Philharmonic
The New York Philharmonic celebrates Bernard Haitink's sixtieth year as an orchestra conductor this month, inviting the 85-year old Dutch maestro to Avery Fisher Hall for two weeks of concerts. On Saturday night, Mr. Haitink capped the first of his two concert programs with a program divided neatly between the Second Viennese School and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Anton Webern is best remembered as a student of Arnold Schoenberg and one of the founders of twelve-tone, or serial music; that practice of basing music on arbitrarily chosen "note-rows" instead of the traditional twelve-note scale. However, Im Sommerwind dates from when the composer was just 21, before his radical maturity. It is a tone poem for huge orchestra, combining strings, wind and brass to weave a compelling tapestry of sound.

Mr. Haitink led a performance of delicate beauty, bringing the hot-house atmosphere of this fevered music to vivid life. Led by the eloquent solo violin of Glenn Dicterow and the skilled horn playing of Michael Gast, the Philharmonic responded with a performance that reveled in the luxuriant textures of the score but was shot through with golden threads of the finest detail.

A twelve-note row is also at the heart of Alban Berg's only Violin Concerto, the composer's last completed composition and one of his most user-friendly. Subtitled To the Memory of an Angel, the work is an elegiac account of the death of 16-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of the composer's friend Alma Werfel (née Mahler). It is one of the few successful works that bridges the very different worlds of twelve-tone composition, virtuoso concertos and program music.

From the first establishing notes, Mr. Kaviakos played with intensity and soaring tone. Berg's cry of grief soared above the complex orchestration which moved, Bach-like from instrument to instrument under Mr. Haitink's meticulous conducting. The conductor ensured a smooth transition into the faster second segment of the first movement. He then leaped into the second movement with only the briefest pause before Mr. Kaviakos unleashed a flurry of notes and a storm of grief. The last, serene phrases of the movement (containing the Bach chorale that Berg hid in the heart of this work, were beautifully played.

Like the Berg concerto, Beethoven's Eroica symphony is written as a memorial--in this case to the ideals of freedom and democratic governance that were killed when the French leader Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. Mr. Haitink led an incisive account of the first movement, with the Philharmonic musicians tossing the deceptively simple thematic ideas to and fro with an ease born of long practice. The short solos in the movement, for horn and woodwinds provided dramatic contrast, and the recapitulation had a robust, satisfying power in its unison chords.

Mr. Haitink took the famous funeral march slowly, building momentum from the opening line of the cellos and basses. The dance movement with its famous horn solo provided some tone challenges for principle player Philip Myers, who sounded like he was having an off night. This was all compensated for in the thrilling finale, as Beethoven's simple figured bass theme sparked a flamboyant series of variations. Everything came together at the close of the work. The coda featured the clear return of the chords from the opening of the first movement, with Mr. Haitink providing the listener with a new understanding of Beethoven's master plan.

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