New York Philharmonic: Expansive with Nielsen, Limited with Beethoven and Korngold

United StatesUnited States  Beethoven, Korngold, Nielsen: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), NY Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York 14.6.2012 (SSM)

Beethoven: Overture to Coriolan, Op. 62
Korngold: Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35
Nielsen: Symphony No. 3, Sinfonia espansiva, Op. 27

For the New York Philharmonic’s penultimate subscription concert of the season, Alan Gilbert selected a grab bag of works to perform. Gilbert has always tried to find some connectivity between the works on a program, and the Korngold Violin Concerto in D Major hearkens back to Beethoven’s concerto in the same key. In the playbill Gilbert states that Beethoven and Nielsen “work well together…both (share) a terseness of expression and dispassion.” With a little creative editing, one can perhaps see an even greater similarity between Beethoven’s opening of the Coriolan Overture and the Nielsen Third Symphony:

Beethoven: Opening to Coriolan  (Edited)

Nielsen: Opening to Nielsen Symphony No 3:

The concert began with Beethoven’s dramatic overture to Coriolan, but Gilbert gave this work a somewhat desultory reading. We have come to expect a certain richness and color from the Philharmonic, but did not get that here. It struck me that perhaps the piece did not get the rehearsal time required. It really wasn’t until the Nielsen symphony that the orchestra snapped into place, and they gave that piece a crisp and coherent performance. Unfortunately, this was not the case with either the Beethoven or the Korngold.

I have admired Leonidas Kavakos since his landmark recording of the original 1904 version of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, and looked forward to his interpretation of Korngold’s concerto. One need only listen to the recordings of Jascha Heifetz, who premiered the work, or Itzhak Perlman’s 1981 disk to hear the unabashedly Romantic nature of the concerto – exactly what was missing from Kavakos’s performance. Sure, the vibrato used in the recordings is over the top, but it is passion and not technique that define the music. Korngold himself is quoted as saying that his work “is more Caruso than Paganini.” Kavakos was underwhelming, often drowned out by the orchestra. The tepid pace of the first movement, marked Moderato nobile, obliterated any contrast with the similarly paced second movement, marked Romance.

By contrast, Gilbert’s reading of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3 was brilliantly rendered. From the opening unison chords to the explosive finale, Gilbert held the orchestra under tight rein. Nielsen was a master of orchestral color, knowing exactly what timbre was needed to match which musical line. I’ve always been impressed with composers who are so sure of what they want us to hear that they will call for an instrument or voice for only seconds or minutes. A case in point is Ives requesting a viola and/or a flute for a brief accompaniment to his monumental Concord Sonata. Nielsen brings in two vocalists here to sing wordlessly for several minutes in the second movement. Why? Because it is right.

Gilbert’s project to record the complete symphonies of Nielsen is certainly well-considered. While this recording cycle might not be anywhere near the magnitude of Bernstein’s resurrection of Mahler, it is certainly a good start for such a young conductor. Now, if he is looking for a new cycle to perform once the Nielsen is complete, how about a complete set of Martinu’s symphonies?

Stan Metzger