Opera Critic » New York Philharmonic

Amid wild gossip — much of it unwarrantedly negative — over the recent appointment of Jaap van Zweden to take over the podium of the New York Philharmonic after maestro Alan Gilbert departs next year, the ensemble showed no signs of despair in this brilliant rendition of Brahms’s Requiem. Formally titled A German Requiem, it adapts essential psalms and critical evangelical verses in an unusually light toned version of the Roman Catholic mass for the dead. Brahms wrote the work at an oddly early time in his career – completing it eight years before his First Symphony. It premiered when he just thirty-five, hardly an age to contemplate mortality (Mozart, of course, died at exactly that age while writing his — though this was a pure coincidence). But circumstances forced the urgency of the piece, as Brahms was devastated by the recent death of his mother and seems to have continued his mourning for his mentor Robert Schumann, who had died a number of years earlier. Brahms was notoriously secretive about his exact motives and artistic choices, but it reasonable to guess that he could take a more heavenly view of death in celebrating the lives of loved ones. The German Requiem rarely descends into the somber minors of other composers’ works in the genre and luxuriates in the simplicity of the selected Biblical verses highlighted in beaming major keys.

A steady performance of the German Requiem rises and falls on the choral contribution, and the Philharmonic’s brilliant playing found fine accompaniment in the New York Choral Artists under their director Joseph Flummerfelt. Rarely a note seemed missed by this superb ensemble. The brief but moving solo parts, for soprano and baritone, were entrusted to two of the finest Lieder singers performing today. Camilla Tilling’s shimmering tones enlivened her parts with a silvery distinction. It was Matthias Goerne’s stupendous approach to the baritone’s lines, however, that delivered on Wagner’s maxim that the height of German art rests in strength, simplicity, and soulfulness. Recalling the very best singing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, he rendered his verses in a calm, velvety tone that gave the piece as much meaning as I have ever found in it.

The whole performance came together majestically under the accomplished baton of the stately German conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, who will turn eighty-seven this year. We can hope for many, many returns.

-Paul du Quenoy

Few orchestral events in New York should generate greater excitement than the prospect of an all (or in this case mostly) Brahms program at the venerable New York Philharmonic. Avery Fisher’s honorary name on its concert hall may have yielded to Hollywood mogul David Geffen’s, but the spirit of the orchestra remains undiminished and its expertise in the late German Romantic repertoire remains hard to surpass among American ensembles.

Maestro Alan Gilbert will permanently yield the podium when his contact comes to an end in 2017, but for this set of performances he entrusted the program to a rumored possible replacement, the Russian-born American conductor Semyon Bychkov. Bychkov has developed a reliably steady career over the past three decades, even if his interpretations tend toward the mannered. This was immediately apparent in the program’s forgettable introductory piece, the Philharmonic’s premiere of the contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert’s brief Brahms-Fantasie, an homage which sounded more like an apology to the nineteenth-century master. A student of the late great modern German composer Hans Werner Henze, Glanert has yet to find a truly original voice to elevate his work beyond the movie music genre pieces that so thoroughly dominate recent classical music.

In the real meat of the program, however, the listener found more satisfaction. Of the two Brahms pieces, the Double Concerto and the First Symphony, it was the concerto that drew the more attention and stimulated a greater degree of audience interest. Bychkov here did an excellent job of harmonizing the orchestra with the piece’s unusual requirement of two soloists, for violin and cello. And what soloists they were! Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, Musical America’s instrumentalist of the year for 2014, played with a sublime sweetness for which she has justifiably drawn global adoration. The technical execution is flawless, the technique nothing less than seductive. At moments it was possible to allow Batiashvili’s playing to waft in coaxing relief through one’s psyche while subsuming the orchestra’s sound. Paired with the eager French cellist Gautier Capuçon, the difficulty of harmonizing the two soloists demanded by this unusually difficult piece melted away. Capuçon exceeded Batiashvili in expressive power, though without vulgarity, and certainly not in any way that marred what both looked and sounded like a joyous collaboration.

Bychkov had no such balancing act to coordinate in the second part of the program, devoted entirely to the First Symphony. Here he could allow his whim to break free of the collaborative constraints and reach some truly intense heights. The introductory sostenuto movement resounded so powerfully that the floorboards at Row W palpably vibrated underfoot. The ensemble is off to a great start for 2015-2016.

In addition to teaching many of Mitteleuropa‘s most noted modernist composers, Alexander Zemlinsky also instructed and loved the young Alma Schindler, who later dumped him rather cruelly to marry Gustav Mahler.  As conductor James Conlon told the audience in a few words before only the second US performance (in concert) of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy (the first was given at Bard College over the summer on a double bill with his other short opera, The Dwarf), this adaptation of dark dramatic fragments by Oscar Wilde stands as a psycho-sexual monument to the composer’s hurt feelings.  Set in Renaissance Florence, it tells the tale of the cuckolded merchant Simone, who returns home to discover Guido, the son of the city’s reigning duke, paying court to his wife Bianca.  After a series of barely polite exchanges followed by some tough talk, Simone challenges the young prince to a fight.  Knives are drawn and, receiving a light wound, the wronged husband prevails upon his faithless wife to bind it with a length of fabric.  He then uses that fabric to strangle the prince to death.  The killing produces neither horror nor regret.  In the opera’s luminescent finale Bianca, who once thought her husband a coward, marvels at his strength.  Simone, who had come to despise his cheating wife, finds himself enchanted by her beauty.
Zemlinsky’s dissonant score is everything one might expect from a work that premiered in Vienna in 1917.  Replete with musical allusions to Richard Strauss’s short, bloody operas Salome and Elektra (the former also after Wilde), it also anticipates the works of Berg and Schoenberg.  It is hard to imagine an ensemble in any country playing these 56 minutes of decadent modernism better than the New York Philharmonic.  Under Conlon’s baton it kept the audience on the edge of its seats with goose bumps.  As Simone, James Johnson commanded the entire role, his philharmonic debut, with gravitas and authority.  Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey captured the doomed prince’s insouciance with real musicianship.  Tatiana Pavlovskaya maintains a fine soprano that justifiably appears around the world, but it seemed somewhat out of place in a demanding mezzo role, her own philharmonic debut.  The orchestra and the young pianist Jonathan Biss warmed the hall in the first part of the program with a fine playing of Beethoven’s second piano concerto. – Paul du Quenoy