Alan Gilbert’s Stylish Debut with The Academy of St Martin in the Fields

15/12/2015

Brahms, Beethoven and Haydn: Inon Barnatan (piano), The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 13.12.2015. (AS)

Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

Haydn: Symphony No. 90 in C, Hob.1:90

Alan Gilbert has been Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra since 2009, and in recent years he has also pursued a successful career with leading orchestras on the European continent. His appearances in the UK have been fairly limited up to now, so there was particular interest in this concert, which marked the conductor’s debut with the ASMF. He brought with him the evening’s soloist, the Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, who is currently the NYPO’s Artist in Association, a role specifically created for him.

The orchestra’s string section, numbering just 24 players, was perhaps a little too small for late-romantic repertoire, but in all other respects its standard of performance in Brahms’s Haydn Variations was superlative. It was soon clear that Gilbert has the ability to obtain a highly disciplined response from his players through his expressive and elegant baton-less gestures. Many conductors possess this technical expertise, of course, but Gilbert combines it with a scarcer quality, which may be described inadequately as that of somehow being able to give his musicians room to play, to express themselves, within a given framework.  Conducting is a mysterious and sometimes intangible art.

Throughout the Variations Gilbert chose adroit tempi, his phrasing was beautifully contrived, and he took great care to vary dynamic levels appropriately. One has heard tougher interpretations of this work, but Gilbert’s elegant, aristocratic performance was very satisfying in its own terms.

The approach to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto was quite similar, at least in the first movement, where close artistic rapport between conductor and soloist was particularly evident. Again the playing was disciplined, refined but expressive. Barnatan’s tone quality was very beautiful, his technique clear and immaculate in execution. The balance between the Classical and Romantic elements in this movement was acutely judged. But then in the more innately expressive slow movement Barnatan let his imagination flow more easily: there was now a very concentrated, inward aspect in his playing, a more improvisatory quality. Here, particularly, the ASMF’s playing well matched that of the soloist in its artistry. In the final Rondo-allegro movement we heard light, sparklingly fresh playing from both soloist and orchestra.

This concert’s chronological journey back in time ended with Haydn’s Ninetieth Symphony, not a commonly heard work, but a very fine one – as of course are nearly all of this composer’s hundred-odd symphonies. Here the numerical make-up of the orchestra seemed just right. There were no original instruments, of course, but timpanist Tristan Fry’s use of hard sticks was appropriate and telling.

Once again Gilbert, conducting without a score, obtained disciplined but expressive and rhythmically vital playing that was a delight to hear. There was a lovely quality of warmth in the slow movement, and some robust, quite blunt orchestral execution in the minuet and trio. The last movement marked, Allegro assai, was taken at tempo that seemed just right, with Haydn’s open, good-hearted personality strongly defined. But here the composer has a characteristic joke up his sleeve, for he contrives a false climax towards the end of the movement, followed by a four-bar rest, in order to confuse the audience into premature applause. On this occasion Gilbert had his own little joke. He conducted through the pause and on through the contrasting pianissimo section very deliberately, so that the audience was not fooled. But then he made a section repeat, and this time stopped dead after the climax. Applause duly broke out as a result, but then in a piece of play-acting the leader pointed out to the conductor that the music hadn’t finished. After mock self-admonishment Gilbert then brought the work to its real close. No doubt some audience members thought this episode did Haydn a disservice, but most seemed to enjoy the little ploy, and it surely didn’t do any real harm.

Alan Sanders

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