The New York Philharmonic perform Beethoven for the Bavarians

Sibelius, Beethoven: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert, Philharmonie, Gasteig, Munich, 14-5-2011 (MC)

Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, ‘Eroica’

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 the ‘Eroica’ is an enduring masterpiece of the repertoire. But I’m not sure that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra made the cleverest choice by including the Eroica as the feature work to a sophisticated Munich audience that must have heard the symphony played on numerous occasions. In England we call this ‘taking coals to Newcastle’. Of course the orchestra can play what they like but it would have been wonderful to have heard this leading American orchestra bring with them orchestral music that runs through their blood such as works by home-grown composers Bernstein, Copland, Barber or maybe something by Ives or Hovhaness. The extremely high ticket prices ranging from € 44.90 to € 156.90 a level comparable with a night at the Bavarian State Opera must surely have been the principal reason for the number of empty seats. In addition an overture or similar could have been easily accommodated as just over eighty minutes of music seemed short measure for a concert.

Sibelius certainly knew how to write for the violin. A fine violist himself as a young man in 1891 Sibelius had auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic. Today it is hard to believe that his violin concerto, a staple of the repertoire, was poorly received at its première in 1903 most probably owing to an ill prepared soloist who played at short notice. Consequently Sibelius withdrew the score and later made revisions. I have heard tonight’s highly talented soloist Lisa Batiashvili previously. She has a cultured quality delivering a most beautiful tone from her 1709 Engleman Stradivarius. Yet in the outer movements Batiashvili’s playing sounded rather routine, unable to supply a sufficient sense of spontaneity, weight and drive. The intensity of darkly smouldering passion was missing in the rich writing of the central movement Adagio. Overall I heard little evidence of darkly mysterious undertones of a chilly Nordic landscape.

Alan Gilbert began as the music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in September 2009 and he has clearly built up a good rapport with the players. However the main work of the evening Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat majorEroica’ also had a sense of the everyday; most surprising for an orchestra of such high international standing. By the last movement I can’t remember seeing as many audience members fidgeting and looking around the hall with their concentration clearly gone. It felt like the NYSO were in holiday mode with swim suits and towels all packed and ready for the beach. Beethoven originally dedicated this progressive score to Napoleon before tearing up the page and replacing it with the title ‘Eroica’. The public première was of the score given in Vienna in 1805 with the composer himself conducting. This is music of considerable concentration and as the designation suggests heroic power.

The opening movement was taken by Gilbert at brisk pace with broad dynamics. Woodwind contributions were notably excellent however the horns couldn’t contain their control at times. A sense of nobility was produced but little in the way of robust tension. Conspicuously sorrowful the renowned Marcia funebre described as an elegy for a hero in the hands of Gilbert was an implacable slow dirge. Over all so soon Gilbert and the NYPO were at their best in the Scherzo intensifying the driving rhythms and providing a reading of buoyancy and energy. Designed as a theme and variations in the concluding movement Gilbert released significant reserves of jubilant energy and vitality yet the reading was rather lacking in drama. It was pleasing to attend a concert on the NYPO’s spring European tour. Everything seemed just fine but this certainly wasn’t one of their glory nights.


Michael Cookson