Gilbert Opens New Season with a Rarity

October 3, 2012

United StatesUnited States  New York Philharmonic Opening Night: Kurtág, Beethoven, Stravinsky: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 19.9.2012 (BH)

Kurtág: …quasi una fantasia… for Piano and Groups of Instruments, Op. 27, No. 1 (1987-88)
Beethoven
: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1796-1803)
Stravinsky
: Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-1913)

Alan Gilbert deserves enthusiastic gratitude for opening the New York Philharmonic’s new season with a relatively obscure but arresting work, …quasi una fantasia…, by the great Hungarian composer, György Kurtág. Per the composer’s instructions, the piano and timpani were onstage, with the rest of the musicians in small groups scattered throughout Avery Fisher Hall, “separated from each other as far as possible.” Perhaps no moment was as mesmerizing as the very beginning, when Leif Ove Andsnes gently laid down the descending scale that begins oh-so-innocently, until the second section, marked “Wie ein Traumeswirren” (“Like a nightmare”) crashes in. Five harmonicas augment the large percussion section. The ten-minute piece has a quiet cast, and in the closing pages, delicate timbres pile up, accreting in a funereal tread.

In a complete change of mood, Andsnes returned for a forceful reading of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, ringing with authority, loud but never coarse. At the end of the first movement, a solitary whoop sprouted up from the back of the hall; I’m not sure the gesture wasn’t exactly right. The audience grew intensely quiet, however, for the graceful, stoic “Largo”—before that voluminous sound returned for the finale, after which many in the audience were standing.

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic in “The Rite of Spring”
Photo: Chris Lee

After intermission came a pummeling, shrieking Rite of Spring, Stravinsky’s unparalleled (at the time) essay in rhythm and color. After Judith LeClair’s beautiful bassoon tone rose into the air like a distant coil of smoke, Gilbert led the ensemble in a series of expertly-judged collisions of the most pleasant kind. (For some, apparently, not so pleasant: the ferocious end of Part I had a woman in the front row scurrying to the exit.) Muted trumpets at the opening of Part II were expertly gauged—as relaxed as the first part was howling. Tension never lagged, and the ensemble showed time and time again that these players can produce an enormous range of seductive tone when needed. We all know opening nights can be affairs either drab or frivolous. This one was neither.

 Bruce Hodges

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