It’s About Time: Old Beethoven, New Sebastian Currier and Overdue Bruckner

Beethoven, Sebastian Currier, Bruckner: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Alan Gilbert (conductor), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 4.6.2011 (BH)

Beethoven: Romance in F major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 50 (c. 1798)
Sebastian Currier: Time Machines (2007, World premiere)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1871-72; rev. 1877; ed. W. Carragan, 2007)

A standing, cheering Avery Fisher Hall audience greeted composer Sebastian Currier during his curtain call, after Time Machines received its third performance with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. Anne-Sophie Mutter was Currier’s eloquent soloist (the piece is, in effect, a violin concerto), taking great care with a work that at times seems to hover between delicacy and extreme delicacy. (At one point a restless audience, coughing violently before a particularly quiet moment, made Gilbert stop until the noise had ceased.)  In seven sections, the work explores diverse types of time – how it passes, how it is perceived. The opening, “fragmented time,” has the violin in a furious buzz, eventually picked up throughout the orchestra. A rocking wind motif forms “overlapping time,” with the violin in arpeggios, crossing paths with the orchestral textures. And in “backwards time” some of the previous motifs reappear, as if to reverse the work’s momentum.

Mutter – looking every bit the star in a scarlet dress fit for the Academy Awards – began the program with Beethoven’s Romance in F major (which coincidentally had received its most recent performance here about a decade ago – also with Ms. Mutter). With spot-on intonation and a bit of spine, she kept the piece lyrical; in the wrong hands it can sound limp and sugary.

If this stirring reading of the Bruckner Second Symphony is a harbinger of what Gilbert will have to say about the later ones, we may be in for some deeply satisfying Brucknerian evenings. The piece is not often played (its last New York Philharmonic appearance was in 1971), which is a shame, since among other felicities it has one of the composer’s most haunting slow movements. If some of the transitions seem a bit roughly conceived, compared to the elegant chord progressions that would come in Nos. 7, 8 and 9, there are still the typical Bruckner chorales, poignant string masses and many sumptuous moments for the winds. (For those interested, Gilbert used the 2007 edition by William Carragan, and very close to Bruckner’s 1877 revision.)

There are those – myself included – who see Bruckner as one of the forerunners of modern minimalism, and given Gilbert’s recent successes with John Adams, it was heartening to see this seldom-played symphony given such loving attention. The opening was swift, with clarity, and notable soft moments for both timpani and the lower strings. As the brass arcs and stacks of radiance began to multiply, Gilbert’s interpretation began to take on some of Haydn’s lithe translucence. The Philharmonic’s horns were in outstanding form – as they would be all evening – and afterward I overheard a number of comments on their lustrous sound.

In the second movement Andante, Gilbert’s sensitive shaping of the phrases offered tantalizing glimpses of the ecstasy and sophistication that would appear in the later symphonies. And after the repose had ebbed away, the stormy Scherzo came as almost a shock – propulsive, with well-executed rests and muscular final bars. The Finale showed Bruckner’s – and Gilbert’s – expertise with contrasts: bellowing climaxes receded into flowing, radiant streams. From Gilbert’s himself: “Bruckner’s music has no program: there’s something utterly pure about it.”

Bruce Hodges


Stan Metzger also reviewed this concert on a different evening, here.