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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.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Concert Review: The Boss is Back

Jaap van Zweden returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A storm of swords: Jaap van Zweden rallies the troops at the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2019 The New York Philharmonic.
We are at the halfway point of the New York Philharmonic's first year with music director Jaap van Zweden on the podium. Friday's morning concert could be taken as a microcosm of what that year has been so far: a marriage of sophisticated players to a conductor steeped in the European podium tradition: solid craftsmanship and a conservative-leaning musical mentality that (the orchestra hopes) will keep the seats filled at David Geffen Hall.

This program was the most conservative yet of this season, lacking any flashy commissions or new works by unknown composers. Nope: this was meat and borscht. First, the Second Piano Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven (with soloist Yefim Bronfman). It was followed with Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, a massive, hour long exercise in late Russian romanticism that is nonetheless one of that composer's most popular works.

In recent decades performance practice in the early works of Beethoven has favored a smaller orchestra, fast tempos and light, transparent support for the piano's solo passages. However, Mr. van Zweden went resolutely in the opposite direction, adding a large compliment of strings and winds to answer Mr. Bronfman's solo playing. Mr. Bronfman, who played a full cycle of Beethoven concertos at the Philharmonic just five years ago remains a connoisseur's choice in this repertory, having the right blend of speed, power and limpid tone to make this music soar.

The pianist proved to be in excellent form in this concert, leaping right into his first solo passage with a bright, ringing tone that also penetrated the depth and meaning of the music. He was answered by the Philharmonic players, who threatened to swaddle the piano in a thick carpet of sound. However, the wily soloist dived and wove his solo line like a golden thread through the fabric, gleaming, intricate and accurate.

The second movement allowed Mr. Bronfman to come to the fore, as the pianist indulged in the lyric expression of the main subject. The finale was taken by Mr. van Zweden at an atypically slow pace, as the playful Rondo seemed trapped in a straitjacket of boxy rhythms. The larger orchestra became lumbering and unwieldy, out-thought and outfought by the scampering piano. The results seemed to please the audience, but what Beethoven intended as a humorous finish seemed to lack charm.

Mr. van Zweden returned to lead the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony, which requires an even bigger orchestra. The bold, expansive first movement, led here with vigor, is the sound of a composer finding his musical voice after the total disaster of his First Symphony. Beset by doubt and at a creative standstill, Rachmaninoff went to a hypnotist, whose combination of conversation and trance therapy enabled the artist to forge ahead with his musical career.

In the three movements that followed, Mr. van Zweden swam in oceans of thick, rich orchestration. Each movement, even the famous Adagio features obsessive return and repetition of the Dies Irae. This medieval funerary chant is a launch point for melodic inventions, a kind of poison laced into the sugary themes that send audiences into a musical swoon. In that arching slow movement and the muscular finale that followed, Mr. van Zweden and his troops favored force over beauty of expression, producing thrilling effect but little in the way of delivering the emotional goods.
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