Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg with the NYPO and Deborah Voigt

Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg : Deborah Voigt (soprano), David Robertson (conductor), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 11.6.2011 (BH)

Shostakovich : Symphony No. 1, Op. 10 (1924-25)

Rachmaninov : The Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Poem after Arnold Böcklin, Op. 29 (1909)

Schoenberg : Erwartung (Expectation), Monodrama in One Act, Op. 17 (1909)

David Robertson is a fearless programmer. A more normal order for this New York Philharmonic program might have placed Rachmaninov and Schoenberg before intermission, with the knockout Shostakovich at the end, so that Second Viennese School doubters wouldn’t be tempted to leave. Or Robertson could have reversed the order of the second half, so the “difficult” Erwartung would be followed by the blissfully tonal The Isle of the Dead. But no, he saved the “difficult” music for the end – and with few defectors, too.

Shostakovich was just an upstart of 19 when he unleashed his First Symphony, an insouciant half-hour that bolts out of the box with a flood of compositional tools. It shows the brilliant young composer delighting in colors, textures, rhythmic power and surprise. The first movement is filled with sudden shifts in mood, startling climaxes, profound silences and a host of eloquent solos. A waltz figure showcases the woodwinds, and here the Philharmonic’s principal flute (Robert Langevin), oboe (Liang Wang), clarinet (Mark Nuccio) and bassoon (Judith LeClair) outdid themselves. A brief vocal outburst from the audience prompted Robertson to turn with, “Thanks, I enjoyed that, too.”

Parts of the witty second movement Allegro evoke the caustic Tenth Symphony that would come over 25 years later, and a glittering piano part anticipates the gleeful First Piano Concerto (1933). In the third movement a stirring cello solo (that brought cheers for Eileen Moon during ovations) precedes a shower of barbaric rain, with concertmaster Sheryl Staples adding sweetly acerbic solos. In the raging finale, even the timpani gets a moment with a funereal march, before the entire orchestra whirls to the dramatic conclusion. Afterward a friend and I were discussing possible recordings and wondering if this performance might trump many of them. Robertson, using crisp movement and body language on the podium, seemed to have an instinctive feeling for the work’s eccentricities.

Timpani again had a starring role in Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead, which also showed off the ensemble’s cellos and basses, and the rich tone of the massed strings in general. Robertson set the pace immediately – an “andante” but not too fast – shaping the phrases precisely but expansively, letting the climaxes arrive after some patience. This was a swift, unsentimental Isle.

Not to carp, but I wish Deborah Voigt had reconsidered her attire: a floor-length peach dress with a bit of a train, and a large bow on one shoulder. Given that Erwartung tells the story of a woman finding a corpse in a forest, whom she may or may not have murdered, the upbeat dress seemed not the ideal choice to help set the mood. Nevertheless, Voigt still demonstrated her considerable gifts with notes all in place, climaxes well-shaped and thrilling, and tone that completely filled Avery Fisher Hall. The orchestra was ferociously right at her back. Yet somehow I wanted just a tad more emotional involvement – perhaps facial expressions telegraphing anxiety and dread – and Voigt seemed a little too cool. It was a very good performance – make no mistake – and it’s worth noting that the audience was filled with young people, many of whom may have been hearing this for the first time. But at the end, this eerie, shocking piece should leave an audience with its collective mouths open.

Bruce Hodges