Saturday, March 31, 2012

New York Philharmonic - Schnittke, Dvorak & Tchaikovsky - 03/29/12

Conductor: Christoph von Dohnnanyi
Schnittke: (K)ein Sommernachtstraum (Not a Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Dvorak: Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53 – Frank Peter Zimmermann
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique”

There are a few musical works that I simply must hear every season, if at all possible, and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” is definitely one of them. As luck would have it, it was on the New York Philharmonic’s program this week, and having this distinguished orchestra do the honor certainly does not hurt either. Although none of the recorded versions of Dvorak’s violin concerto I had heard so far had really grabbed me, I figured that it might be fun to experience it live for the first time with reliably solid Frank Peter Zimmermann, the orchestra’s Artist in Residence for this season. So come to think of it, everything seemed to fall into place for me to wrap up my short work week and start my extra long weekend under some pretty favorable auspices.

However, before immersing ourselves into Czech folklore and Russian Romanticism, we first made a short but immensely enjoyable detour in contemporary eclecticism with Alfred Schnittke’s (K)ein Sommernachtstraum, which he paradoxically wrote for a program dedicated to a version of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Salzburg Festival. Innocently opening with a classical piano and violin duet, it does not take long for the audience to notice that, in this case, it is the 12th chair of the second violins that is in charge of the solo passages. Before you even get a chance to legitimately start wondering what this is all about, the composition veers into a fast-paced, kaleidoscopic adventure spanning the whole history of music while indiscriminatingly mixing up various genres with its own kitschy seasoning before returning where it all began less than 10 minutes later. It has to be heard to be believed.
After such a wild ride, Dvorak’s violin concerto sounded downright traditional, especially with its sweet, hummable melodies so pleasantly spun out by Frank Peter Zimmermann. It certainly does not have the dazzling impact of the composer’s Cello Concerto and inevitably pales when compared with the Big violin concertos of the répertoire. Even Joseph Joachim, for whom it was originally written, never got around to playing it (Not to be overly picky, but really, where do you go after the Brahms?). On Thursday night, Zimmermann exercised much German meticulousness, and a tad more bohemian spontaneity would have helped turn the folkish third movement, which contains Czech and Ukrainian dance tunes, into a more joyfully exuberant Finale.
Then came Tchaikovsky’s magnificent swan song, one of the most popular musical masterpieces ever, and for some very good reasons. Under Christoph von Dohnnanyi’s solid command, the score’s gripping emotional power, which is stressed by the French meaning of the word “pathétique”, was on full display during the entire long-winded journey. The mighty orchestra’s silky strings and bright brass took us through a superbly majestic first movement, an elegant, if slightly sarcastic, limping waltz, a brilliantly assertive military march which, of course, did not fail to arouse a healthy round of applause, and finally the achingly drawn-out ultimate whisper. It does not get any better.

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