Wednesday December 30th, 2015 - Joshua Bell (above) played Mendelssohn's violin concerto with The New York Philharmonic tonight on a program that was otherwise an all-Sibelius affair, in celebration of the Finnish composer's 150th birthday.
Sibelius's The Swan of Tuonela, which opened the evening, was originally to have been included in an opera the composer was working on. It later became one of the Four Legends - the best-known of the four and often played as a stand-alone work. Tuonela, the realm of the dead in Finnish mythology, is surrounded by a dark-water moat on which the swan of Tuonela floats majestically, singing.
This is music of somber gorgeousness. Sibelius structures the work on a cushioning of strings; Carter Brey's mournful cello theme sets the tone. An evocative English horn passage (played, I believe, by Robert Botti - though we didn't catch sight of him) leads to a brief brightening of mood. But the swan glides back into the gloom and her voice fades away to a mysterious heartbeat. At the composer's wish, The Swan of Tuonela was performed at his own funeral.
Alan Gilbert spoke to us before commencing the Sibelius Symphony No. 4. He seemed to veer from personal enthusiasm for the piece to apologizing for its depressing qualities. The symphony was written while the composer was dealing with problems stemming from alcoholism. This probably accounts for the work's disjointed qualities.
Forward-looking harmonically, the 4th does not sound like most of the other music that has given Sibelius lasting popularity over the years. Carter Brey again had a leading theme - played with striking lyricism - in the first movement. Later, as the ensuing movements unfold, the oboe, clarinet, and flute will all have their moments to shine forth. Maestro Gilbert referred to the second movement as a Scherzo, but if it's a joke it stems from a very dark sense of humour; oddly, it includes a brief gavotte motif for flute duo...charming, but it goes un-developed. The big, deep theme of the Adagio comes closest to what we could think of as Sibelian. The agitated opening of the final Allegro - which includes the unexpected introduction of the glockenspiel - does not resolve in a positive way.
Overall, the Sibelius 4th seemed an odd inclusion on a holiday-season program. Interestingly, it had not been played by the Philharmonic for nearly 30 years. Tonight's audience reacted with a mixture of admiration for the playing and uncertainty as to whether they really liked the piece or not.
Following the interval, Joshua Bell appeared for the Mendelssohn violin concerto. This was the composer's last completed orchestral work: within three years of its premiere in 1845, he had died at the age of 38 following a series of strokes.
Mendelssohn’s violin concerto is innovative in that its three movements are played without pause, preventing mood-breaking applause. Eschewing gratuitous technical flourishes, the composer instead goes in for heartfelt melody. There are brilliant and demanding passages to be sure, but they are more conscientiously woven into the musical fabric than tacked on to display the violinist's deftness.
The concerto in fact seemed like a conversation between soloist and orchestra and, in the course of playing it, Mr. Bell often turned towards the musicians to keep the dialogue flowing in both directions. It goes without saying that the orchestra played superbly, and that Maestro Gilbert was in his particular element here - especially in the Adagio, where he and Mr. Bell communed in an almost balletic pas de deux.
Throughout, in fact, the black-clad violinist wove, bent, and swayed in a dance that had just a trace of the satanic about it as he drew the music from his 1713 Stradivarius. Right from the start - in that lovely and rather restless opening theme - Mr. Bell assured us we were in the presence of a musician of matchless technique, inspired artistry, and deep commitment. His capacity for subtle nuance was spine-tingling, and the satiny lustre of his sustained playing in the Adagio was - in a word - magical.
Among the many felicities in this performance, I particularly liked Maestro Gilbert's up-sweep of tempo as the first movement neared its conclusion, and some dashing attacks from Mr. Bell in the finale. It was a performance to treasure, and the audience could not suppress their enthusiasm: the applause erupted a split second before the final note could fade away. Mr. Bell was called out three times, and could easily have served up an encore or two: I liked instead that he let the concerto stand as his year-end gift to us. Bravo!
Returning to Sibelius to end the evening, Maestro Gilbert and the Philharmonic gave us a soul-stirring rendering of the composer's Finlandia: a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, performed with resonant grandeur.