Monday, December 3, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Britten & Shostakovich - 11/29/18

Conductor: Jaap van Zweden 
Britten: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 15 (1965 version) 
Simone Lamsma: Violin 
Shostakovitch: Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 (Leningrad) 

Forty-eight hours after enjoying a long but fun evening with Mefistofele at the Met, I was back at Lincoln Center on Thursday, for a thankfully shorter evening at David Geffen Hall to touch base with the New York Philharmonic this time because, after an extended hiatus from New York City’s thriving music scene, the right thing to do is to hit all the bases, isn’t it?
The potential object of my affection on Thursday was Britten’s violin concerto, an elusive score that the English composer wrote while living in the United States at the beginning of the Second World War and that I had never heard before. The concert would also give me the opportunity to check out Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, a long-time acquaintance of NY Phil music director Jaap van Zweden. Since the man became one of the two concertmasters of the prestigious Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra while still a teenager, I figured that he knew a thing or two about violin playing, and that his choice could therefore be trusted.
The program also featured Shostakovitch's humongous Leningrad symphony, maybe not so coincidentally another piece closely related to the Second Word War. Back in Stalin’s good graces, Shostakovitch started working on it in 1939 before the German invasion, completed in 1941 and dedicated to the city of Leningrad, which was then undergoing a horrendous siege that lasted almost three years and caused over one million deaths. Unlike Britten’s violin concerto though, it was a huge success when it first came out, and still frequently appears on concert programs all over the world.

As a big fan of Benjamin Britten, especially his operas and War Requiem, I was very much looking forward to becoming acquainted with his violin concerto. And sure enough, the opening timpani, which can’t help but conjure up the Beethoven violin concerto, immediately caught my attention, and it pretty much went all the way uphill from there. The ghost of Prokofiev was unmistakably hovering over the restless second movement while the unpredictable passacaglia of the third movement eventually brought us all the way back to the Baroque tradition of the chaconne.
However, having been finalized in 1965, the concerto is also a thoroughly modern, occasionally experimental-sounding, composition. Simone Lamsma put her deep knowledge of it to excellent use, impeccably smoothing it out and brilliantly mastered it from beginning to end, including the challenging and oh so thrilling cadenza. After such a hell of a New York Philharmonic debut, there is little doubt that Ms. Lamsma will be back for more sooner than later.
Before leaving us on Thursday though, she graciously acknowledged the enthusiastic ovation and readily treated us to the last movement of Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Violin Op. 11, No. 6. Another rarely heard piece that she handled with the same amount of expertise and confidence.
After intermission, Shostakovitch's sprawling Leningrad symphony unfolded with grandeur and authority under the energetic baton of maestro van Zweden. Although the composer’s true intent may never be known for sure (Are there some sarcastic double entendres under the obvious anti-war statement?), the work has such a sweeping force that it is hard not to be carried away by it, regardless of its inner meaning. The famous “Boléro” military march of the first movement, in particular, came out precise and powerful, inexorably building to its resounding climax. The Leningrad symphony may no longer enjoy the wild popularity it once did, but performances like that one show us why it still matters.