Dudamel and Gilbert Score

By Sedgwick Clark 

I’ve heard nearly every one of Gustavo Dudamel’s New York concerts. At first I had my quibbles, but I always walked out of the hall with a smile. His music-making made me feel good to be alive.

In two concerts at Avery Fisher Hall this past weekend, his Los Angeles Philharmonic played better for him than ever. The strings had greater strength and unanimity, and the conductor unerringly balanced cross rhythms and accompaniment figures in the winds and brass to keep textures moving. The solo horn, Andrew Bain, played with eloquence and warmth in his many solos, and Joseph Pereira, a student of the New York Philharmonic’s late, great timpanist Roland Kohloff, provided dynamism and rhythmic punctuation to passages that in other hands too often turn soggy.

Leading off the LA’s first concert was John Corigliano’s 1988 Symphony No. 1. While not exactly new, its brand of dissonant tonality fits well into today’s current style. It memorializes three of the composer’s friends who succumbed to AIDS and received a slashing, uncompromising performance. It should be played every year. Dudamel’s commitment to contemporary composers is genuine, and he programs new works on nearly all his LA programs. After intermission came Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. I never thought I could love it again, but Dudamel proved me wrong.

In the second concert, wispy, little Yuja Wang played Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with her usual mind-boggling virtuosity, and she played it uncut, as is usual these days. A curious line on the program page said, “Ms. Wang will perform cadenzas by Rachmaninoff.” Well, of course. But which of the two he composed for the first movement did she play—the lighter, rather mercurial one favored by the composer in his recording or the heavy, chordal alternative? Wang chose the first, lighter version. Dudamel’s accompaniment in the Rachmaninoff was ideal, sticking to her fleet fingerwork like flypaper through every più vivo and meno mosso. Composers usually know best, and I’ve always wondered if all the pianists who indulge in ostentatious “expressive” emphases, rubati, ritards, etc. did so because they couldn’t play the piece as written, in tempo—but Wang can and did, and the performance built naturally, with no eccentricities.

After intermission, Dudamel conducted an affectionate Brahms’s Second Symphony, which in its moderately brisk tempos and lovely singing lines reminded me of the 1945 San Francisco recording by Pierre Monteux, which is how I came to know the work on my parents’ 78s. Dudamel even allowed himself a few subtle tenutos, which he will probably expunge as time goes by but which made me smile on each appearance.

Alan Gilbert’s Nielsen “Inextinguishable”

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic are in the process of recording the symphony cycle of Denmark’s greatest composer, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), for the Danish label, DaCapo. So far only one CD, recorded in concert and containing the Second and Third symphonies, has been released, but last week the orchestra performed an all-Nielsen concert that will constitute the second CD: Helios Overture, Op. 17; Symphony No. 1, Op. 7; Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”), Op. 29.

It’s hard to beat Nielsen’s Fourth for concert hall drama, with its dueling timpani placed on either sides of the orchestra. This was Gilbert’s and the orchestra’s finest Nielsen performance so far, on Friday afternoon, March 14. Clearly this was a master “take,” and the conductor could take chances on Saturday evening—such as when Nielsen indicates “Glorioso” twice in the score, and Gilbert’s response struck me as cautious.

Leonard Bernstein placed the timpani on the front of the stage when he performed the symphony with the Philharmonic in 1970, but it was disappointingly ponderous interpretively and thin sonically on LP. The CD remix vastly improved the sound, but it still couldn’t compete with the supercharged Martinon/Chicago recording on RCA. Gilbert followed the composer in placing the timp at the back of the stage. Mike placement will take care of any recording concerns. I feel secure in predicting that the Gilbert will be considered one of the best Fourths upon its release.

Gilbert’s performance of the First Symphony, however, seemed less certain—perhaps like the composer, who took four years to write it. Gilbert links the symphony to Brahms, but I hear Bruckner in the final movement.

The third CD, to be recorded at the October 1-3 concerts in the fall, will include Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 6, presumably to be released by the anniversary of the composer’s 150th birthday in 2015.

Looking forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

3/26 Zankel Hall at 7:30. Ensemble ACJW. Ives: The Unanswered Question. John Adams: Shaker Loops. David Lang: pierced. Copland: Appalachian Spring.

3/27 Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30. New York Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel. Vivier: Orion. Bruckner: Symphony No. 9.

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