Friday, January 14, 2011

Nordic heat

Wednesday, January 12 2011

Berlin Philharmonic
David Zinman, conductor
Yo-Yo Ma, cello

Anders Hillborg, Cold Heat
Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No. 2
Nielsen, Symphony No. 5

If I have waxed poetic about the Berlin Philharmonic in the past, it's with good reason. I have yet to be disappointed by a concert, and the musicians maintain such a high standard of playing that it will be difficult to listen to anything else in the future without being a little disappointed. This season, though, seems somewhat off. Normally the principal example for thoughtful and inventive programming, Simon Rattle's Philharmonic has taken a year-long break from innovation.

Although I credit the orchestra and management for livelier programs than the average American orchestra, this season's overall program lacks focus. There are only five works by living composers in the entire 2010-2011 programming; three are world-premieres, but only one is being lead by Rattle himself (I heard the premiere of Rodion Schtschedrin's brash, unmemorable Symphonic Diptych under Gergiev last month). Martin Hoffmann, the orchestra's new managing director, writes in the season brochure that the two big themes of this year are Mahler and Russian music. You can get away with saying that Finnish music, or South American music, or even Scandinavian music is a theme--but Russian music? That's a cop-out. And as much as I have loved the Berlin Phil's Mahler performances so far, and look forward to the next four symphonies, pretty much every orchestra in the world is in the midst of a Mahler cycle right now.

Rattle's got some great pairings for each of the Mahlers--Wolf and Brahms with the Third, Stravinsky's Apollon Musagete with the Fourth, Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary with the Fifth, and Berg's Three Pieces with the Sixth. But that doesn't compare to the genius juxtapositions of a few seasons ago, when he put together works by Adès, Kurtág, and Lindberg next to the late Mahler symphonies.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I haven't reviewed the Philharmonic in the past month because I haven't had much to say. Well-led concerts by Paavo Järvi, Gergiev, and Dudamel were highly-polished but uninspired--which is why it felt much better to hear a world premiere and a less-frequently-encountered masterpiece on Wednesday night.

Let's start with the masterwork: Carl Nielsen's Fifth Symphony, a brilliant titan of a Fifth. Like Sibelius, Nielsen circles around the edges of what we anticipate from the symphonic narrative, constantly defying our expectations, teasing the ear with climaxes before suddenly pulling away. The Fifth's broad, all-encompassing two movements could almost stand separately on their own: each contains a fully-developed emotional arc.

In the first movement, though, that arc is mostly elusive. Fleecy serenity flows into gunmetal militarism, but always tempered with a certain uneasiness--Nielsen's narrative constantly eludes us, each moment of glory becoming tangible only in hindsight. Towards the end of the movement, a majestic, overlapping chorale percolates among strings and brass, with sputtering percussion accompaniment--what could only be the heroic apex. Suddenly, though, the sputter disappears, all instruments step into a glorious, radiant sync, and the true summit becomes visible. It's a strangely beautiful moment in a symphony of strange beauty. David Zinman crafted a mysterious but vivid interpretation, aided by the Phil's velvety strings and stellar woodwind solos.

The Nielsen had its Nordic counterpart in Anders Hillborg's Cold Heat, given its world premiere. Cold Heat has the same kind of gleam as the works of Nielsen and Sibelius, but with a bit more wildness. Hillborg treats the orchestra as a massive organism, with tectonic plates of pulsing sound. A percussion rampage in the middle of the work seems to recall Thomas Adès's Asyla, and the rippling strings and quasi-avant garde woodwind licks resemble the spectral Romanticism of Magnus Lindberg's more recent works---perhaps why, though I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it, I felt like I had heard it before.

If only Shostakovich hadn't interrupted the flow between Hillborg and Nielsen. The composer's second cello concerto is a meandering, angsty work overburdened by the typical Shostakovichian gestures, which here serve more as signposts than as actual emotional signifiers. Yo-Yo Ma, oddly enough making his first Philharmonic appearance in fifteen years, gave as much polish and verve to the piece as possible; the quality of his playing soared over the quality of the music. Ma and Zinman proved excellent partners, finding a chamber-like balance between orchestra and soloist.

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