Review: Schumann and Brahms, New York Philharmonic

Wednesday, April 27 2016
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Carter Brey, cello

Franck Krawczyk, Après (2016)
Schumann, Cello Concerto (1850)
Brahms, Symphony No. 2 (1877)

Restless.  That seems to always be how I am when visiting David Geffen Hall.  Something about the unsettling orange glow of the place, or maybe it’s just the constant dread of the orchestra’s brass.  But alas I hadn’t been to a New York Philharmonic concert in almost half a year and wanted to take advantage of my last week of living near the red line.  I had just forgotten the possibility that, through no particular fault of the musicians, I would leave the concert feeling more anxious than I already was.

The opening piece, a world premier, is one of those Alan Gilbert specialties.  While the last movement–comprised of basically just the piano and the harp–was actually somewhat atmospheric to listen to, the rest of the piece sounded quite literally like nails on chalkboard.  At one point the musicians made music by tapping their instruments on the music stand.  Yes, I get it, the composer wants to make some point about liberating music from its tradition forms or whatever, but you will not convince me that this stuff should be consumed more than very sparingly.  Mr. Gilbert seemed completely at ease though, much more than he ever is with the standard repertoire.

And standard repertoire would dominate the rest of the evening.  On paper, Schumann’s Cello Concerto should be one of the instrument’s iconic showpieces.  Schumann writes the prettiest music.  I bet that’s what it says on his tombstone: “Here lies Robert Schumann.  He wrote the prettiest music.”  Set in the same key of A minor as his passionate piano concerto, one expects that such pedigree on a cello would be a soulful masterpiece.  In many ways it is, but the piece never quite rises above just being pretty notes strung together.  Any conflict present seemed superficial and simply there to fill in empty spaces between the prettiness.  Similarly, Mr. Brey, the orchestra’s principal cellist, gave a virtuosic yet uninspired performance.  In fact he played too much as a member of the orchestra and not enough as a soloist, competently but not assertively.  The end result was a half hour of lyrical notes and play whose sum was less than its parts.  To be fair, after Mahler and Shostakovich, all other music would probably sound superficial.

Going into the evening, I was pretty nervous about Brahms’s Second.  Considering how prominently the trombones feature in the symphony and how the New York Philharmonic has by far the weakest trombones of any major orchestra–seriously, I think my high school’s marching band had better trombone players–I waited for jarring mistakes from them as anxiously as I usually wait for the aforementioned nails-on-chalkboard kind of dissonance in new music.  As a pleasant surprise, the trombones and the brass in general made no disruptive mistakes.  The strings were curiously harsh toward the end, but I blame Mr. Gilbert for that more than anything else.  Overall the performance was fine: appropriately folksy at times, foreboding at others, even quite rousing at the end.  Yes, compared to the BSO performance of the same piece last year, the grand finale did not feel earned, but a less telegraphed conclusion would have been wasted on me anyway on this night.  It went better than expected.  What else can one want from life?

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