Conductor: Roberto Abbado
Haydn: Symphony No 93 in D Major
Bruch: Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor, Op. 26 – Joshua Bell
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 in C Minor, Op. 67
My week at Carnegie Hall has been full of surprises brought on by the much-lamented absence of James Levine, who was supposed to conduct the three concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra but had to cancel because of recurring health issues. On Tuesday night the orchestra’s assistant conductor, Marcelo Lehninger, had very capably taken over and the program had remained the same, for better and worse.
As I was getting ready to buy my ticket for Wednesday night with Maurizio Pollini as the soloist a couple of weeks ago, I was informed that not only had he also cancelled due to illness, but that Joshua bell would be the soloist and would play… Bruch’s violin concerto! The one and only violin concerto that I unconditionally love but had never had a chance to hear live despite all those years of dedicated concert hall patronizing. For a while I thought the situation was hopeless, but careful planning, sheer serendipity and Itzhak Perlman, who is scheduled to perform it at Carnegie Hall on March 26, were about to change that insufferable state of things. And lo and behold, it suddenly looked like I had the opportunity to indulge in it not once but twice within two weeks by two of the most brilliant violinists around. Sometimes stars do align, don’t they?
The new program also included Haydn’s pleasant Symphony No 93 and Beethoven’s masterful Symphony No 5, all under the ever-reliable baton of Roberto Abbado. A lot of “comfort music”, yes, but I had paid my dues to modernism and open-mindedness the night before, and Beethoven’s No 5 was a ground-breaking work in its time anyway. So there.
I have the same relationship with Haydn as with Dvorak: I wouldn’t go out of my way to hear his works, but when I do hear them – and I come across them fairly often – I thoroughly enjoy it. And it happened again with his Symphony No 93, the first one of his “London” series, on Wednesday night. Under Roberto Abbado’s assured leadership, the orchestra did full justice to yet another example of Haydn’s mastery of the classical form.
Ah, the Bruch concerto! Never mind his other two violin concertos, or the rest of his impressive œuvre for that matter. His violin concerto in G Minor remains one of the pure jewels of the Romantic répertoire and one that I had been listening to in various digital versions again and again while patiently (then impatiently) waiting for a chance to hear it the way music should be heard: live. And hear it live I finally did, and supremely performed too thanks to Joshua Bell. Between the keen melodic talent of Max Bruch and the expert input of Joseph Joachim, who was probably warming up for the Brahms back then, the final composition could only be, and definitely is, a high-flying virtuosic feast for the ears. On Wednesday evening, the slow, somber opening was quickly livened up by the violin’s dramatic entrance, and the music soon switched into full lyrical mood. Unsurprisingly, the radiant sentimentality of the delicate Adagio, the unconventional center of the piece, beautifully stood out before exhilarating fireworks simultaneously concluded the concerto and broke the curse once and for all in truly grand style.
Premièred not even two decades after Haydn’s Symphony No 93 but already a world away, Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 managed to radically change the face of music AND sound magnificent at the same time, so it can be done. It is probably the most popular symphony of them all, and consequently a steady presence on concert programs all over the world, but how can one not just sit, listen and marvel at what came out of the mind of a single deaf composer? Obviously relishing the moment as much as the audience, conductor and orchestra embarked on the daunting technical and emotional journey with finesse and gusto for a rousing performance, making the ultimate war horse sound superbly alive and kicking. James Levine would have been proud.