Above: pianist Inon Barnatan
Friday October 30th, 2015 matinee - Still recovering from the flu that forced me to miss some scheduled events, I went to The Philharmonic this afternoon knowing I might not make it thru the entire program. But I was very keen to hear Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem - a work that is rarely done - and to hear pianist Inon Barnatan - the Philharmonic's artist-in-association this season - playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23. At intermission I would decide about staying on for the Beethoven 5th.
Last season conductor Jaap van Zweden impressed in a pair of NY Philharmonic concerts that included a magnificent Shostakovich 8th. This afternoon's performance resoundingly re-affirmed all the positive elements in the conductor's realm of thought and expression. He is business-like and devoid of theatricality, favoring instead a deeply probing approach to the music. Yet this is not detached, by-the-book music-making, for his interpretations seem flooded with emotion.
The Britten Sinfonia da Requiem was written in 1940 while the composer and his partner Peter Pears were living in Brooklyn. Having left England as a conscientious objector, Britten accepted a commission (from the Japanese, ironically) and set about creating a work - drawing on Latin texts from the Mass for the Dead - that would commemorate the deaths of his parents and also serve as a pacifist's response to the horrors of war.
The Sinfonia is a magnificent piece, and I wish it would be performed more often so that music-lovers could become better acquainted with it. The work calls for a huge orchestra, including massed phalanxes of violins, violas, cellos, and double basses as well as a large brass contingent and doubled winds, with alto sax, bass clarinet, two harps, and piano adding unexpected hues to the sonic palette.
For the opening Lacrymosa, an initial boom! gives way to brooding; the violas lament and there is an unsettling heartbeat motif. Rampant horns herald a series of ominous chords and doom-ladened drumstrokes. In the Dies Irae which follows, the flutes and horns stutter; the strings take up a brisk, galloping figuration. The heraldic trumpets and the magnificent horns ring forth, and the saxophone brings in an unusual colour. The music becomes almost zany before dwindling to nothing as the work evolves into the final Requiem Aeternum. Harp and winds intone a gentle hymn, taken up by the pensive horns. Bassoon and bass clarinet lead us to an uplifting violin theme, tinged with sadness. The music builds to a huge hymn-like passage and then suddenly reverts to softness: plucked strings over sustained clarinet tones that simply fade into thin air.
The performance was utterly mesmerizing: absolutely gorgeous playing from everyone and all crafted into a splendid whole by Maestro van Zweden. For a passing moment I wondered how it might have been had Britten used a chorus in his Sinfonia, but then I realized he was right in keeping the words unspoken and letting the instruments sing.
The Hall's wonderfully efficient stagehands then reconfigured the seating and rolled the Steinway into place. Watching and waiting, I felt the contentment of being connected to great music played by great musicians: a feeling that deepened in the ensuing Mozart.
For Mr. Barnatan is nothing less than a wizard of the keyboard, and in this performance of the Piano Concerto No. 23, allied with Maestro van Zweden and cushioned by the genial Philharmonic strings and winds, was indeed magical. The pianist's control over a vast dynamic range and the sheer fluency of his technique made an excellent impression from the moment he began to play. Mr. Barnatan chose to play the cadenza as Mozart set it in the score; it's rather brief - as cadenzas go - but very appealing.
The pianist now drew us deeper and deeper into the music with the poetic delicacy of his playing of the Adagio. His solo passages were luminous, and there was lovely support from the wind soloists. A spellbinding sense of dolorous quietude was summoned forth, and a passage of very simple piano statements over plucked strings was most effective.
Then Inon launched a barrage of coloratura to introduce the Allegro assai. Here his playing became ever more magical as he wove a spell of soft enchantment: the finesse of swirl after swirl of delicate notes played at high speed. Called back twice to warm applause, the pianist had clearly cast a spell over the Hall, and I cannot wait to hear him again...could we have the Schumann perhaps??
By now there was no question of leaving - sore throat be damned! and I hadn't coughed once - and so I was treated to a Beethoven 5th far more beneficial than any medicine.
The Beethoven symphonies don't always send me, but the 5th truly did today, for Maestro van Zweden and the Philharmonic artists simply soared thru it, with a real sense of the music blooming. I gave up taking notes; aside from the scrawl "...deep resonance of sound!!..." my program page is simply covered with names and exclamation point: "Liang Wang!"..."Langevin!"..."LeClair!"..."McGill"..."the trumpets!"..."Carter Brey!"...and "Philip Myers!!!"
As the plush and regal themes of the third movement sailed forth, I felt yet again the thrill of being connected to music on such an elemental and immediate level. A quote from Robert Schumann in the Playbill so well captured what I experienced today listening to the Beethoven (well, to the entire program, really!) today: "This symphony invariably wields its power over people of every age like those great phenomena of nature that fill us with fear and admiration at all times, no matter how frequently we may experience them."
Above: Jaap van Zweden in a Marco Borrgreve portrait
A final word about Jaap van Zweden: in the three concerts he's conducted here that I have experienced, he has shown a mastery of a variety of musical styles and a real affinity for making the familiar seem fresh. After the Beethoven 5th today, the audience gave him an especially appreciative ovation, laced with bravos. Coming out for a second curtain call, the Maestro signaled for the players to stand, but they all shook their heads and left him with a solo bow...and then they joined in the applause, tapping their bows and stamping their feet. It was a lovely moment. In their search for a new Music Director, The Philharmonic may have found their man.