Saturday, January 29, 2011

Beethoven, Sibelius, and Nielsen: "New" music at the New York Philharmonic

This weekend's New York Philharmonic concerts featured works by Sibelius and Nielsen that the orchestra hasn't performed in years, if at all.  There was Beethoven too, if you like hearing music you've heard dozens of times before.  (Not that I have any problems with Beethoven -- I love the guy -- but it's wonderful to hear something unfamiliar now and then.)  The music wasn't unfamiliar to me, though; I played the two Beethoven works and the Nielsen symphony with NYRO several years ago.

The concert opened with Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F.  I would call it a boisterous reading, with great work from the two horns in the third movement, excellent attention to dynamics (especially the recapitulation in the first movement, when the upper strings and winds play fortississimo and drown out the melody in the cellos) and I especially enjoyed watching the timpanist playing like mad on three drums at the end of the piece.  (Although there's only two drums in the score, so I don't know what he was doing, but it looked amazing from where I sat.)

A smaller Philharmonic came onstage for Beethoven's concert aria "Ah, perfido!"  Soprano Karita Mattila brought the singer's words to life, portraying a scorned woman going through a variety of emotions through ten minutes of music.  Music Director Alan Gilbert kept the orchestra out of her way, but also brought out the woodwinds when their lines and Mattila's intersected and complemented each other.

After intermission, the Philharmonic and Mattila performed three songs by Jean Sibelius.  I'd never heard these songs before (and neither had New York audiences -- two of the three had never been performed by the Philharmonic before, and the third one not since 1965) but they were unmistakably Sibelius.  I'd know those harmonies anywhere.  Once again, Mattila's voice was perfect for this music.

Finally, the Philharmonic marshaled all of its forces for Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments."  I've noted before in this space that Nielsen's music is not as popular here as it would seem to deserve.  I hope that's changing.  In the program notes, Gilbert wrote of his love for Scandinavian music (from his years as music director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra) and his puzzlement at the lack of exposure to Nielsen's works.  He wrote that he plans to program all of Nielsen's symphonies over the next few years, which excites me as a musician and a fan.  The last time the Philharmonic had played Nielsen's 2nd was in 1973, shortly before I was born.  That's too long.

The first movement was crisp and stormy, with the winds and brass completely on point with short, loud blasts.  The second movement, with its languid phrases, put some of the people around me to sleep.  The ones who weren't sleeping applauded between movements, which baffled me.  Who are these people?  We don't clap between movements here!  Yes, I'm a stickler for concert etiquette.  The third movement, representing melancholia, was moving and powerful.  I just adore the long brass and string melodies in this movement, and the orchestra played them beautifully.  The last movement was spirited and bold and brought the concert to a close that the audience really seemed to appreciate.  I felt sorry for the few patrons I saw leaving at intermission.  What a treat they missed!

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