NYPO offer a Beethoven Bon-bon, some Sebastian Currier Caffeine and a Dollop of Brucknerian Schlag

June 7, 2011

Beethoven, Sebastian Currier, Bruckner : Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Alan Gilbert (conductor), New York Philharmonic, New York, 2.6.2011 (SSM)

Beethoven: Romance in F major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 50 (ca. 1798)

Sebastian Currier: Time Machines (2007; World Premiere)

Bruckner: Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1871-1872, rev. 1877; ed. W. Carragan, 2007)

Alan Gilbert continues to create adventuresome programs that mix familiar works with brand new or rarely performed ones. Tonight’s relatively familiar piece was Beethoven’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F Major. The new work was Sebastian Currier’s Time Machines, a concerto written for Anne-Sophie Mutter. The rarely performed Bruckner Symphony No. 2 ended the evening.

Anne-Sophie Mutter gave an easeful, elegant performance of the Beethoven Romance. If overplayed the lyrical first theme can easily sound treacly, but Ms. Mutter didn’t allow this to happen. The work is in rondo-sonata form with each new theme modulating into a minor key and the central section acting as a brief development in sonata form. Although little is known of this work’s pedigree, the quiet and inconclusive coda leads one to suspect that it could be the second movement of some lost or unwritten violin concerto. There is such a sense of expectation at this moment that one can almost hear the beginning of the imagined concerto’s finale. This was the world premiere of Ms. Mutter performing under Mr. Gilbert’s leadership, and she surely should have been pleased by his responsive accompaniment.

The other world premiere, Sebastian Currier’s Time Machines, a seven-movement concerto commissioned by Ms. Mutter, followed the Beethoven. Mr. Currier certainly had no doubts as to Ms. Mutter’s technical abilities, and she played the demanding piece with little evidence as to how difficult it must have been to master. The concerto was mature and accomplished, complex yet accessible. Mr. Currier’s deconstruction of his composition in the printed program, though helpful in understanding its underlying musical structures, was not needed to enjoy its unique sound world (just as one does not need to understand the intricacies of the harmonic and canonic world of Bach’s Goldberg Variations to enjoy its musical realization).

Each movement has its own distinct voice. The first is a buzzy whirlwind of instrumental colors, the violin mostly used as emphasis, and ends with impossibly fast violin runs at the lowest dynamic level. The second movement is made up of clever and amusing “delayed” responses or echoes of the violin’s short phrases. The third movement is all snapping, virtuosic percussive sounds and pizzicati, the cacophony seeming to last only seconds. The fourth movement, a virtuosic showpiece that Ms. Mutter played with rapid-fire bravura, is highlighted by what sounded like a piano but was probably the vibraphone. The fifth is the most highly inventive movement, complex, frenzied and heavily orchestrated. I found this movement humorous, as if it contained conversations between wood thrushes, while the final notes sounded not unlike ducks quacking. The sixth movement was the only one that seemed derivative, a brief work that could have been part of any set of Webern’s pieces for orchestra. The final variation, entitled “harmonic time,” was almost lyrical, opening with Ms. Mutter sounding as if she were about to play a late romantic concerto à la Sibelius. The similarity ends quickly yet the movement remains lush and lyrical, a heart ready to burst.

After intermission Mr. Gilbert concluded the concert with one of the least known of Bruckner’s output, the Symphony No. 2. This was a daring move on Mr. Gilbert’s part: he could have chosen the more accessible Fourth or the monumental Ninth, but the Second would never be close to the top in anyone’s Bruckner’s Top Ten. Yet the Second is as representative of Bruckner’s works as any other, and to get caught up in its magic gives one the key to opening the door to his other mystical chapels. Not since Bach has a major composer written music so entirely in Soli Deo Gloria as Bruckner, nor has any composer’s entire opus seemed as if it were part of one integrated whole. On one level, Bruckner’s symphonies appear to be a variation on Liszt’s Les Préludes: “What is life but a series of preludes to that unknown song, of which the first solemn note is sounded by death.”

Every crescendo that Bruckner wrote walks a tight line between being emotionally convincing and bombastic, but unless poorly conducted never becomes the latter. Like few other composers he demands that listeners suspend their disbelief and give the music room to make itself believable.

In the evening’s Playbill, Mr. Gilbert writes, “I could conduct [Bruckner] every day for the rest of my life and be satisfied as a musician.” His exquisite recreation of Bruckner’s musical spires might just accomplish with this composer what Bernstein was able to do with the next generation’s great symphonist, Gustav Mahler.

Stan Metzger

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