New York Philharmonic
Avery Fisher Hall
February 16, 2013
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Rudolf Buchbinder, piano
Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique”
Imagine a kinder, gentler nineteenth century, one not with Schopenhauer, but Oprah, as the Prime Comforter—a time when Johannes Brahms might have found antibiotics to cure his syphilis and AA for his drinking, learning that the sublime was easily accessible in an everyday sort of way and therefore not so sublime, when Peter Tchaikovsky might have found reassurance and confirmation in a gay pride parade and realized that that bleak symphony he wrote was just an intellectual construct or a shallow reumination of a sort of John Adamsy variety. That was the impression Alan Gilbert left me with this Saturday evening. The music was intellectually stimulating and for the most part impressively played, but it was tidy and limited, as if Gilbert didn’t quite believe that the composers meant anything so drastic in their music.
The first movement of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto was brisk, with a mildly irritating hint of cheerfulness behind it, as if the Second Piano Concerto were a pendant to the Second Symphony. The lady seated next to us thought Buchbinder sounded as if he were bored with the piece. I, on the contrary, was surprised he was so willing, even enthusiastic, an accomplice in this intellectually wakeful, but otherwise insouciant stroll through the work, because I have heard him play it with great breadth and dignity in the past, for example with the Concertgebouw under Harnoncourt. The most satisfying part of this performance was the slow movement, oddly enough, which was a true Andante—a refreshing touch of accuracy in a movement which is often played closer to Adagio. He had the advantage of the accompaniment of one of our great cellists, Carter Brey, and the other soloists of the Philharmonic played with the splendid technique and musicianship we know from the Philharmonic and the other great American orchestras. The cello section, which is especially prominent in the concerto, most gratifyingly showed the extent to which they have taken on Mr. Brey’s light tone, agile articulation, and pinpoint intonation. The execution was superb throughout, not least in Buchbinder’s technique, which was fully equal to the fast tempi of the outer movements. A deliberate revisionist agenda is clearly apparent in this deflated approach to the concerto, and, to be fair, I don’t know whether it originates with Buchbinder or Gilbert. Buchbinder’s reading of the work could have evolved since I last heard him play it, which was many years ago, or he could have a mercurial bent I’m not familiar with. The piano he played had a thinner, brighter tone than the rich instruments he favors in Europe, and speed may have offered a solution. On the other hand, Alan Gilbert’s approach to Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” which followed showed a similar efficiency and horror profundorum.
The most interesting part of Gilbert’s reading was at the very beginning. He kept the orchestral textures especially clear, with well-defined woodwind and brass lines. He kept the tempo moving, avoiding the familiar phrasal gestures and letting color and harmony convey the dark moods of the music, to which he was by no means insensitive. Otherwise restraint and clarity of texture and structure were the order of the day. The fine orchestral playing so evident in the Brahms was compromised in the Tchaikovsky. There was some ragged ensemble in the strings and winds in the inner movements, with their animated figurations. Gilbert also went against the grain in the second movement, which was spry rather than charming or luxuriant. He seemed specifically to want to avoid any tonal sensuality in the strings and winds. The treacherous acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall aided him considerably in this. This was a moment when I wondered whether any conductor could create a beautiful or seductive timbre in that hall, but of course that has happened, and I have heard it with my own ears. There are times when the acoustical shortcomings of Avery Fisher Hall are minimalized to the point where one thinks that one could almost live with it. Certain conductors manage it better than others. I have heard Alan Gilbert, who ought to understand the hall in and out by now, produce handsome results—but not on this occasion. Higher passages in the winds sounded shrill and lacking in dimension, and the effect was extremely unpleasant. This was noticeable in the scherzo of the Brahms, but most of all in the second and third movements of the “Pathétique.” The final movement was the least successful, I thought. His revisionist agenda demanded an active tempo, and it seemed rather perverse. The effect was not exactly perfunctory, because he was indeed respectful of the movement’s grave mood, but it did not allow the full weight of Tchaikovsky’s grief to make itself heard. The orchestra produced some wonderful pianissimi here.
To filter these major Romantic expressions through the anodyne primness of the twenty-first century is obviously as much an anachronism as Beecham’s Handel or Mahler’s Beethoven. We still need to connect with the Romantics on their own terms, even if we have a self-help group around the corner to tell us that everything is all right.