With the new year, its the homestretch for Jaap van Zwedens six-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, which ends this spring.
But even on their way out, chief conductors dont lead their orchestras that much. Before this week, van Zweden hadnt been on the Philharmonics podium since early October, and after Sunday he wont return until mid-March.
So Thursdays concert at David Geffen Hall was an island in a sea of guest batons. And it was about as van Zweden-esque as a program could be, consisting of nothing but standards: the kind of music that this maestro most relishes, and what he was brought to New York to enforce discipline in.
These days, if a major orchestra is going to play classic repertoire like Beethovens Fourth Piano Concerto and Brahmss Fourth Symphony, as the Philharmonic did on Thursday, it tends to precede it with a short contemporary piece in the opening slot. Window dressing, maybe, but its become the norm.
So it was almost radical to instead give that position to the Act I Prelude from Wagners Die Meistersinger von Nrnberg, probably the most-played chestnut of the evening. (For what its worth, audiences dont seem to mind: The weekends run of four performances rather than the usual three is all but sold out.)
The Wagner turned out to be the weakest point in an otherwise very fine concert. This was a flowing, not stodgy, take on the Meistersinger prelude, bringing the winds and brasses to the fore, their lines audible even in passages that usually spotlight the rich strings. While the sound wasnt heavy, especially at loud dynamics it still emphasized the unpleasant way that, in densely massed music, the stark lucidity of Geffen Halls acoustics can tip into brittle blare rather than warm blend.
This was less of a problem for the pared-down ensemble in the Beethoven concerto, though both here and in the Brahms, there was sleekness in the high strings without meaty heft; I kept wanting more depth to the violin sound. But there was considerable spirit and some evocative hushed playing. Again and again in the concerto, van Zweden cast a dreamlike glow without losing rhythmic tightness or momentum.
And the performance boasted an immaculate soloist in Rudolf Buchbinder, nearing 80 and playing with patrician reserve and clarity, neither indulgent nor detached. At the start of the second movement, his tone was poignantly wounded in the face of orchestral aggression; in the finale, he was the ensembles graceful partner.
The Brahms symphony was also clean and straightforward: precisely done, its tempos reasonable. The second movement developed eloquently from muted and funereal to noble and grand before a hearty third, and a fourth that was more sober and reflective than raging. This wasnt a thrilling performance, but it was a considered and satisfying one.
And it was part of a trend. When van Zweden last led the Philharmonic, in October, on the program was Beethovens Fifth Piano Concerto and Schuberts Unfinished Symphony. In those pieces and on Thursday, I didnt feel the rigidly tense, mannered, punchy quality that has marred some of his performances. This Beethoven and Brahms were strong without being overbearing, shaped but with room to breathe.
New York Philharmonic
This program continues through Sunday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.
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