Spark Missing from Haitink, Kavakos and the New York Phiharmonic

United StatesUnited States Webern, Berg, Beethoven: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 8.5.2014 (SSM)

Webern: Im Sommerwind (In the Summer Wind); Idyll for Large Orchestra after a Poem by Bruno Wille
Berg: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Beethoven:  Symphony No 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, Sinfonia eroica

It wasn’t the end of the subscription season for the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night, but it certainly felt that way. There were a number of empty seats, but part of the problem might have been the fear of having to sit through works by two members of the Second Viennese School of composition, Webern and Berg (the third member being Schoenberg). Could it be possible that serious concert-goers still quake at the mention of their names, composers who flourished fifty to a hundred years ago?

Well, there was little to be frightened about. The Webern piece was far from the sparse, bare, overly studied music that made him infamous. Written in 1904 and without an opus number, this orchestral work has a student feel about it. One hears in it the influences of Strauss, whose major tone poems had been written; Mahler, who had already premiered his Symphony No. 5 and was in the process of writing his Sixth; Schoenberg, who had written his Verklärte Nacht five years earlier; and Wagner, who died the year that Webern was born.

Derivative as it may be, there is much to enjoy in this imaginative and well-orchestrated piece. Webern was very specific in both his annotation of the score and instrumentation but, sadly, the Philharmonic did not appear to get it. Only the brass section seemed prepared and in unison; otherwise, tempos were slack and the playing was lackadaisical. The opening passages, annotated with the exact same marking as Wagner’s Siegfried  Idlyll, “sehr bewegt” (very agitated), was played softly but lacked the required nervousness. This is the kind of music that the NYP does well under Alan Gilbert (who performed it with the orchestra in 2010), but Haitink did not have whatever spark was needed to enliven the performance.

When successfully played, the Berg violin concerto is that rare work that triumphs on the technical level as serial music yet goes beyond any other work of its time in communicating the raw emotions felt by the composer. Expectations were high given the combination of violinist Leonid Lavakos and conductor Bernard Haitink. This was especially true for me, having been disappointed with the Philharmonic’s last performance of the Berg with Frank Peter Zimmerman and Alan Gilbert in 2011. Unfortunately, the problem with balance in the 2011 performance became an issue here too. Both Zimmerman and Kavakos failed to dig into the score, and the Philharmonic may have played loudly but lacked the frenetic energy that the score demands. One need only listen to Isabelle Faust with conductor Claudio Abbado to understand what was missing in Kavakos’s execution.

Beethoven’s symphonies have undergone serious rethinking as to the correct tempo to be used and whether or not to take the repeats. The longer symphonies, such as the Third, could become turgid when played too slowly and moribund if repeats are added to the mix.  Beethoven’s metronome markings are of little help and, if anything, they complicate the issue. The first movement of the Eroica has a metronome marking of sixty, putting it roughly in the category of adagio; yet Beethoven gives the textual tempo as allegro con brio. If we trust the metronome the tempo should be very slow. If we trust Beethoven’s descriptive annotation, the conductor would need to double the orchestra’s speed. Even more confusing is the fact that there is no consistency from work to work. For example, theallegro con brio first movement of the Fifth Symphony has a metronome speed of 108.

Those who grew up on Toscanini’s Beethoven hear the Third as an energetic, rhythmic romp, with every movement, save the Marcia Funebre, allegro or faster.  Haitink’s disappointing Third took all the repeats in an endlessly slow first movement that never got off the ground. The second movement, seemingly played at a similar tempo as the first, never sounded dirge-like and its middle section crescendo never reached the expected emotional heights. Even the presto final movement didn’t catch on fire.

The numbed audience had to wait until the conductor turned around and gestured to them to applaud, and they did, but rather coolly.

Stan Metzger

2 thoughts on “Spark Missing from Haitink, Kavakos and the New York Phiharmonic”

  1. Stan, the first movement of the “Eroica” is 60 to the 3/4 bar, i.e. 180 to the quarter note. It’s a clear allegro con brio, there isn’t any question about it. One bar per second.

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