Woodwinds and a Mermaid Hold Court

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky, Mozart, Zemlinsky: Judith LeClair (bassoon), New York Philharmonic, Andrey Boreyko (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 18.1.2014 (BH)

Stravinsky: Chant du rossignol: Poème symphonique (Song of the Nightingale: Symphonic Poem (1913-14/1917)
Mozart: Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major, K. 191/186e (1774)
Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau (The Little Mermaid),
Fantasie in Three Movements for Large Orchestra after Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Op. 18 (1902-03)


In Andrey Boreyko’s first weekend (of two) with the New York Philharmonic, he began the concert with a transparent reading of Stravinsky’s Chant du rossignol. Somehow the unpredictable acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall seemed to take on a different ambience, as if the hall had expanded to accommodate the smorgasbord of solos. Concertmaster Sheryl Staples had the lion’s share; her manicured tone is not heard often enough. Eric Huebner and Steven Beck (the former on celeste, if I recall correctly) added plenty of glitter, along with agile contributions from principals Robert Langevin and Philip Smith on flute and trumpet, respectively.

It was a good night for the ensemble’s wind section, with Judith LeClair in the spotlight for Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto. In the orchestration, the composer limits the wind contingent, which enables the soloist’s plump tone to be more clearly audible. Boreyko encouraged the ensemble to play with masterful restraint, and LeClair’s tone—especially in the first movement’s graceful cadenza—was the equivalent of a fine scotch. Cue spontaneous applause. After the languid second movement, the final Rondo again exploited the instrument’s full range, as if browsing a timbral library. Many in the audience were standing at the end.

Alexander Zemlinsky’s tone poem, Die Seejungfrau, is at the opposite end of the orchestration scale, calling for a large orchestra that includes four flutes and clarinets, three bassoons and six horns. Based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale, the score was originally paired with Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, both sharing an exploration of symphonic form. But Zemlinsky’s was shelved after its Vienna premiere, and the first movement was lost when he came to the United States. Fortunately—as recently as the 1980s—scholars restored the missing portion, pieced together the score’s entire 45-minute length, and in recent years Riccardo Chailly and James Conlon, among others, have made memorable recordings.

If I have two minor quibbles, they are in the repetitions of the (admittedly gorgeous) themes, which sometimes wear out their welcome. And the finale of the second movement (“Very animated, sweeping”) seems too abrupt, as if the composer just decided to pull the plug and didn’t quite know how to do it. (At that point many in the audience, unfamiliar with the score, burst into applause.) But for most of its luxurious span, the score surges with chromaticism and heat—a cross between Scriabin and Richard Strauss. In the finale, marked “mit schmerzvollem Ausdruck” (“with painful expression”) Boreyko elicited ravishing work from the ensemble, yet with an edge, and the final pages had the gentleness of a curtain slowly falling at the end of a fairy tale.


Bruce Hodges