Review: Tchaikovsky Festival, New York Philharmonic

Thursday, February 2 2017
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano

Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1879)
Tchaikovsky, Manfred Symphony (1885)

Oceans rise,
Empires fall;
The horn is off-key
Through it all.

The New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall is nothing if not consistent.  The acoustics is bad, the brass winds are worse, and the audience clap prematurely when not marring the performance with incessant coughing–that much you can always count on.  In these otherwise inconsistent times, these familiar shortcomings of the orchestra and concert hall are almost reassuring.

Speaking of which, the Tchaikovsky piano concerto started predictably with an off-keyed intro by the horn, followed by a timid entrance of the piano.  (This orchestra, with its sheer size, invariably drowns out the soloist at the onset of concertos.)  Then things got unpredictable, as in I couldn’t recognize the music being played.  I mean, Tchaikovsky’s First is an odd piece of composition in that its most famous theme is only heard twice at the very beginning, and without refrains of the theme as markers it is difficult to extract the form of the composition, so no matter how many times I listen to the piece, parts of the middle passages always seem new to me.  But tonight’s performance sounded much more foreign than that; stylistically it sounded almost, dare I say it, German?  It wasn’t until after the concert that I realized Mr. Gerstein had performed a rarely-heard version of the concerto, and that the version one typically hears was published after Tchaikovsky’s death and may or may not have been authorized by the composer.  In recent interviews Mr. Gerstein suggested this earlier version to reflect a “a more lyrical, almost Schumannesque conception of the concerto”.  That explains it then.

I’m not the biggest fan of programmatic music, but Tchaikovsky is probably the most tolerable composer for it.  He keeps fillers to a minimum while leaving just enough to the interpretation.  Moreover, Tchaikovsky is generally very accessible in that most of his music is pleasurable even at the first listening.  The Manfred Symphony is no exception, though I noticed that the memorable highlight of the final movement is suspiciously similar to the theme of the bacchanale from Samson and Delilah.  The waltz-like scherzo section also reminds me of the second movement of the composer’s own Sixth Symphony, but more celestial.  I think Mr. Bychkov brought the best possible performance out of the orchestra, fully emphasizing its rich strings and smooth woodwinds.  For once the prohibitive size of the orchestra is a strength instead of liability, as Mr. Bychkov somehow got the over 100 musicians to play as one.  Some pieces of music never sound as polished in person as they do in recordings (Chopin’s First, for instance), while some others, like the Manfred Symphony, must be heard live to be truly appreciated.  Its operatic quality doesn’t come across well over YouTube, but under the seemingly effortless baton of the conductor, theatrics abound.

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