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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: New York Philharmonic Triumphs in Hair-Raising Britten and Shostakovich

REVIEW: New York Philharmonic Triumphs in Hair-Raising Britten and Shostakovich

DECEMBER 1, 2018

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

The death of George H. W. Bush, a navy pilot in the Second World War, brings reflection that merely some eight decades ago, Hitler's wrath unleashed unspeakable horror onto the planet. One of the best ways to reflect, of course, is through art produced by artists who experienced it. Two of the twentieth century's greatest composers, England's Benjamin Britten and Soviet Russia's Dmitri Shostakovich, were responding musically as war broke out in their homes and lives.

In what might go down as one of this season's most thrilling events, Jaap van Zweden returns to the podium at David Geffen Hall to lead the New York Philharmonic in two incredibly powerful such works. All hands on deck, this is a tight, hair-raising account of Shostakovich's dramatic Symphony No. 7, the "Leningrad," from 1941. But the real eye-opener of the concert might be Britten's too rarely played, yet stunning, Violin Concerto, featuring soloist Simone Lamsma in her brilliant debut with the Philharmonic.

Britten composed his Violin Concerto in the wake of the Spanish Civil War that preceded the outbreak of WWII, and soon his strong personal feelings of pacifism drove him to America for a few years, where the New York Philharmonic premiered the concerto in 1940. Infused with Spanish atmosphere, the concerto's three highly engaging movements serve to convey, to me, the human tragedy of war. Lamsma's passionate virtuosity, paired with van Zweden's clear command of the piece's geography, bring Britten's deeply expressive masterpiece to life.

The piece begins with a simple motif in the timpani that threads through the first movement, as bittersweet harmonies and the solo violin's long-lined melody swirl in. Lamsma's shimmering tone brings Britten's doleful, noble meditation to life, equally as vividly on the E string's highest reaches and in determined rhythmic utterances. Lamsma projects wonderfully, soaring above the large, but nicely supportive, forces.

The second movement, a Scherzo, is a thrill ride. Britten writes daringly for the fiddle, calling upon the player to do wrenching things -- difficult extended techniques, octaves, triple-stops, harmonics. It brings to mind a fight for one’s life, the heat of battle. Lamsma dispatches these challenges with staggering skill. A master orchestrator (he did revise the score later in life), Britten’s effective use of simple percussion instruments, such as liberal use of bass drum, like bomb explosions, offsets the violin's high whistling cries. The struggle pauses in a breathtaking moment, the solo careening from the sky as if helplessly. The cadenza's death throes, as fleeting memories and regrets flash in and out of sight, conclude with the violin ascending upward to infinity, as a mournful, elegiac Passacaglia creeps in. 

Simone Lamsma playing the Britten Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic.  Photo credit: Chris Lee

Simone Lamsma playing the Britten Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic.

Photo credit: Chris Lee

It's a gripping work, and makes a natural precursor to Shostakovich's epic Seventh, another confrontation between man and war. The symphony’s Herculean 77 minutes fly by as van Zweden keeps the tempo purposeful. The new music director extracts a variety of flavors from the Philharmonic's string section. Heartfelt lushness in the first movement's opening theme, yearning for the bliss of home, the beauty in simple things, perhaps. And in the Adagio third movement's Mahler-esque opening strains, the tense, long lines are imparted with an impassioned accent. Proving himself a master of musical architecture, the maestro shapes the first movement's trademark crescendo for maximum impact, as the sardonic march -- satirizing the Nazi troops invading the city -- builds like an evil iteration of Ravel's Bolero

The percussion section gets to strut their stuff in Shostakovich's gratifying score, and timpanist Markus Rhoten was among the soloists singled out for acknowledgment at the ovation. The woodwind choir sounds smooth and round, with a golden amber tone. Superb solo playing shines throughout. Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist, is a star, playing the piece's many high-strung solos with the right amount of tartness and lyricism. Amy Zolato's bass clarinet sounds impish and delicious in the suspenseful second movement. The brass, practically an army of them in number, play with piercing accuracy and devastating power. 

The last movement, which begins with another combat-like action sequence -- John Williams must have taken inspiration here for his Star Wars film scores -- settles into a dark, sinister triumph. The piece's dizzying climax is not a happy ending. It is a triumph of the human spirit colored with resignation to a long struggle to come.

This is a spectacular concert, and there is yet one more chance to hear it. Music of reflection, poetry, adventure, and great risk, brought ecstatically to life. Run, do not walk.

Photo credit: Chris Lee

Photo credit: Chris Lee

Concert details:

New York Philharmonic

Jaap van Zweden conducts Britten Violin Concerto, with Simone Lamsma, soloist, and Shostakovich Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad."

Tuesday, December 4. 7:30 PM. David Geffen Hall.

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