Saturday, April 27, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Emanuel Ax, piano. April 25, 2013.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat V104, $72).

Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503 (1786) by  Mozart (1756-91).
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1873, rev. 1874, 1876-77, 1878 and 1888/89; ed. L. Nowak, 1959) by Bruckner (1824-96).

Anne couldn’t make this concert because she is staying behind in the Boston area.  I decided to return one of the tickets and went by myself.  After an early dinner at home, I caught the 5:25 pm train to New York City.

The one surprising thing about this concert was how sparsely attended it was, even with a name like Ax.  There were quite a few empty seats in front of me and both seats next to me were empty.

In the “Alan Gilbert on This Program” section of the Playbill, Gilbert talks about Mozart concertos being frequently paired with Bruckner symphonies.  That was certainly news to me.  And as I prepare to type these notes, I looked through my prior entries with Bruckner, and none of them was paired with a Mozart concerto.  Since none of those concerts had Gilbert as the conductor, perhaps Gilbert is one of the few conductors that do that?  Besides, while both pieces were excellently played – more on that later – I couldn’t hear any Austrian connection between the two very disparate pieces of composition.

I have remarked on several occasions that I cannot tell a good performance of a Mozart composition from a great one.  But I have to make an exception: Ax truly put in a great performance.  While the word “brilliance” isn’t usually associated with a Mozart piano concerto, many other words do, and for me tonight’s performance is even emotionally appealing.  The music is great, but for me the deeper appreciation is how great the performers were able to make it sound.  With the exception of the second movement (Andante) which I found a bit monotonous, the lines in the other movements (Allegro maestoso and Allegretto) were just beautiful.  The artists played with their heart, and the audience listened with their hearts.  As Gilbert describes it, Ax’s musicianship is natural, and his music unfolds in an inevitable way.

The Program Notes for both the Mozart piece and the Bruckner piece talked a lot about things around the music, but not about the music itself.  The write-up on the Mozart piece looks very similar to (what I remember of) the write-up for the last Mozart concerto I heard.  They were written within the same general period, anyway – the other one being No. 23.  It did talk about a passage that sounded very much like the theme song of the French Revolution, which is interesting, but didn’t really add to one’s appreciation of the work.

Bruckner’s third symphony went through revisions similar to the other symphonies I had heard or read about.  His symphonies never seemed to enjoy instant success, and – the supposedly insecure composer that he was – he would try to revise them.  Well, it looks like I am not the only person who doesn’t get Bruckner’s work upon its first hearing.  In any case, this work went through three major revisions, some not even approved by him.  In its originally composed form it evoked so much Wagner that the latter agreed to have it dedicated to him.  Supposedly Bruckner was most pleased with what we heard tonight, but by this revision most of the Wagner quotations were gone – except for the end of the second movement which had a fleeting reference to Die Walkure.

At least that is what I gleamed from the Program Notes, which I suspect left things a bit ambiguous on purpose, for various reasons.  That is not what I heard, though.  The piece started very quietly, and to my ears it sounded somewhat like Das Rheingold and The Flying Dutchman.

I took advantage of the “elbow room” I had and took some notes on the piece.  After the Wagnerian start, the volume quickly built up.  As I observed before, Bruckner had a more classical (meaning traditional) approach to the symphony, and the way he developed a theme was relatively easy to catch.  The first movement (Mehr langsam, Misterioso) was quite long at 21 minutes.  During the second movement (Etwas bewegt, quasi Andante; 16 minutes) we heard a rare and beautiful melody from the viola section.  Somewhere along the line it got very complex: I noticed that each of the string section was further split into two parts.  I listened attentively till the end of the movement and embarrassingly couldn’t hear anything from Die Walkure.  (I will be going to the opera in a couple of weeks; maybe something would jog my memory.)  The third movement (Zielich schnell – Trio) was relatively light-hearted and lasted a relatively short 8 or so minutes.  The beginning of the fourth movement (Allegro; 15 minutes) reminded me of another composer and his works: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Romeo and Juliet.  After a few minutes I noticed during the supposedly unison passages some instruments would come in a fraction of a beat late.  It happened enough times that I wonder if it was on purpose; unfortunately it is probably very difficult to get a copy of the score.  There was a slow cello passage that was also very pleasant, and that was again followed by a Prokofiev-like passage. (I am writing this fully aware that Prokofiev was born in 1891, after the last revision to this symphony.  Perhaps I should have said “anticipated Prokofiev.”)  The piece ended in a typical Bruckner manner, loud, with the strings playing tremolos and the woodwinds and brasses belting out the melody.

The orchestration for the symphony is again quite traditional, but everyone showed up.  I counted 16 second violins, and the roster has only 13 names.  Again the brasses were sometimes on the loud side, although not nearly as egregious as the last Bruckner.

The symphony was close to one hour in length.  To my surprise, I didn’t find it long at all.  Actually somewhere along the line I was telling myself that I was enjoying it.

I am glad I went.  The New York Times review was at best lukewarm on the Bruckner piece, interestingly placing the blame on the ambiguity of the piece due to its many revisions rather than the conductor.  The reviewer also heard references to many Wagner works which I thought got revised out of the score – I will go with my lack of perception on this one.  He even blamed the Avery Fisher acoustics for the disjointed performance he heard.

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