Berg Replaces Beethoven in a Concert Of the “Three Bs”

United StatesUnited States Bach, Berg, Brahms: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Alan Gilbert (violin and conductor), New York Philharmonic Orchestra,Avery Fisher Hall,New York, 5.10.2011(SSM)

Bach  Concerto for Two Violins in D minor
Berg  Violin Concerto
Brahms  Symphony No. 3 in F major

One has to admire Alan Gilbert for his provocative programming, tying together three works of three very different composers on the basis of the common mood of sadness. There is more than just sadness that connects Bach to Berg. In the final movement, Berg clearly quotes from a Bach chorale, going so far as to incorporate Bach’s own harmonization. The connection with Brahms’s third symphony stretches Gilbert’s thesis. The third symphony, as tonally vague as it is, ultimately ends in F major, the same key of Beethoven’s sixth and eighth, symphonic works that certainly could not be considered sad. Except for  the decidedly upbeat (as upbeat as Brahms ever is) symphony in D major the first and fourth are in the traditionally “sad”  keys of D and E minor. Gilbert ends an interview about the program stating, “Somehow these works work really well together, I think, on a program.”

Regardless of whether the three works performed  last night had a common theme – musical programs, after all, are not Sunday crossword puzzles – it was nonetheless another adventuresome programming effort by Mr. Gilbert.

A quick look at the fascinating NY Philharmonic digital archives reveals that not much Bach has been performed at Avery Fisher Hall by the New York Philharmonic in recent years. In fact, this was the first performance of the Bach double violin concerto since April of 1985. That concert, reviewed by Donal Henahan in the New York Times complained that the concert was old-fashioned and ponderous; and that the two soloists, associate and assistant concertmasters, showed “sturdy competence but no special flair or rhythmic variety.” Twenty-six years later his issues with that performance are the same as most critics would have with last night’s concert. Gilbert nodded his head only once to Baroque historically informed performance practice by resizing the orchestra to the acceptable sixteen players: four first violins, four second violins, four violas, four celli (although I could only see three), two double basses and a harpsichord continuo. Was there much else that Gilbert could do to inform the work with some standard early music techniques? Short of giving his orchestra Baroque instruments and bows and sending them across the street to the Juilliard School’s Historical Performance division for a crash course in playing without vibrato and with dotted rhythms, not much. He would also have had to request that the acoustic pods that were installed during the summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival to reduce reverberation, brighten the higher registers and repair the flat radio sonority that came from onstage, be reinstalled. Nevertheless, both instrumentalists  played with flair and vitality and Gilbert’s skill as a violinist (he started playing at five and appeared as orchestral soloist at ten) is another feather to put in his hat.

The Berg Violin Concerto that followed was also somewhat disappointing. Zimmerman contributed his major role with appropriate emotional conviction, evidently well-versed in the subtleties of this difficult but moving work. The problem had much to do with balance. There is a wonderful point in the first movement where the flute plays a lovely little refrain that the soloist echoes. The brass came in at that moment so forcefully that the soloist was drowned out, but part of a conductor’s job is to be a virtual recording engineer, preparing the orchestra so that the balance between soloist and orchestra allows independent audibility of all instruments.

The Berg concerto is that rare piece of “modern” music that is on some level accessible to most listeners. It’s dramatic, touching, angry but ultimately accepting of one’s place in life, with the final movement’s chorale echoing the resignation of Bach’s unsung words, “Es ist genug.” Certainly this is not a easy piece, nor a particularly happy one, but the unsmiling faces of the orchestra members bowing for the applause made this audience member feel funereal.

The third symphony of Brahms concluded the concert.  This work is another difficult creation by a difficult composer. The third looks forward to Bruckner and Mahler, whereas  Brahms’s other symphonies look back to Beethoven. For these symphonists, the conductor needs to keep in mind that there is a conceptual line connecting the movements which needs to be understood in its whole as well as in its parts. Bruckner, for example, needs a tremendously broad perspective that holds the ambiguous sections together; otherwise all we hear are scraps of music that come and go with no connection to one another.  Brahms’s third symphony has a similar nature, at least in the first and last movements where fragment phrases predominate. The third movement is the most familiar, composed in the form of the traditional minuet and trio, the main theme repeated so many times that we walk out humming it. But the other movements need the conductor’s help to make them appealing.

Perhaps Gilbert was worn down by the weight of the previous melancholic nature of the program: an adventuresome effort, but not a particularly satisfying one for me.

Stan Metzger