On Friday night, the concert of the New York Philharmonic started with a Beethoven piano concerto: No. 5 in E flat, the “Emperor.” At the keyboard was Leif Ove Andsnes and on the podium was Jaap van Zweden. Those are birds of a feather, certainly when it comes to Beethoven.
Fred Kirshnit, the late music critic, and my dear friend, once suggested that we write “pre-concert reviews.” We would tell people how the concert would go, thereby sparing them, and us, the need to attend. He was kidding, of course (mainly). Concert life is full of surprises, like sports life, and life itself.
Anyway, I could have imagined an “Emperor” Concerto from Andsnes and Van Zweden before going to David Geffen Hall. Their Beethoven is virile, disciplined, and unsentimental. It is rhythmically precise and smoothly sculpted. It is clear and clean.
About Andsnes, I have long said, “He plays like he looks. He’s immaculate. Not a hair is out of place.” Van Zweden does not have Andsnes’s hair (or any). But something similar can be said about him.
On Friday night, the first movement of the “Emperor” was magnificent. It could hardly have been better. The music was not heavy or light. It was not “period” or “Romantic” or “modern.” It was, simply, right—Beethoven-like.
The middle movement was good too. It started with a poor entrance in the strings, but we were not listening to a studio recording, thank heaven. Live entails some mistakes. The second movement in general was effective.
It is the pianist’s job to manage the transition from the second movement to the Rondo. This, Andsnes did superbly.
Now, the Rondo is rather awkward, like a rondo that would come a little later in music history: the one that concludes Brahms’s Piano Concerto in B flat. You are lucky if you hear a truly good performance of either rondo.
Andsnes gave a good one, along with Van Zweden and the New York Phil. But this movement was the least strong of the three. Andsnes had a slight problem with articulation and a note or two was missed (shocking). Also, the music fell into routine, just a little.
Remember, however, that one’s standards for Andsnes and Van Zweden are very high (at least mine are). And let me record that the timpanist’s beats toward the end were keen and deft.
Let me record, too, that the horn section was crack—not cracking but crack. They played warmly, stoutly, supplely, and accurately. In years past, the horn section has been—uneven? If it was not an asset then, it is now.
From Leif Ove Andsnes, the audience clearly wanted an encore, and Andsnes is very good at them. His 2006 album of encores, Horizons, is one of my favorite albums of piano encores (and there are many such albums). On this occasion, he played Dvořák, one of the Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85, I believe. Andsnes has been championing these pieces. I wish I could like them as much as he does. But I certainly like them, and they have a noble champion in Andsnes.
It has been a good season for Norwegians in New York. In September, Lise Davidsen, the amazing young soprano, gave a recital in the Metropolitan Opera House. And now Mr. Andsnes has played across the plaza, as he so often has.
Are Andsnes and Davidsen the two leading musicians in Norway? I cannot say they aren’t.
Usually, a new piece of music appears on the first half of the program. On Friday night, a new piece appeared after intermission: it was Jacob’s Ladder, by Steve Reich. I will comment on this work, so Reichian, in my forthcoming “chronicle” for the print magazine.
Last on the Philharmonic’s program was a Schubert symphony. Could there have been time for one? Well, it was the “Unfinished.” Before it began, I thought of Fred Kirshnit again.
He told me a story about Furtwängler. Furtwängler was rehearsing an orchestra in a Schubert piece—probably a symphony. And the orchestra started too big, too staunch, too robust. Too Beethoven-like, let’s say. Furtwängler stopped and said, “Gentlemen, this is Schubert.” He said no more. He started the piece again and the orchestra was completely different: Schubertian.
So was the New York Phil., under Van Zweden. The music was haunting and alluring. It was inward and warm. There was a Schubertian glow around it.
The “Unfinished” can resemble a clarinet concerto, and Anthony McGill was first-rate. So was his colleague Sherry Sylar, the oboist. So musical, so singerly. And does she ever have to breathe? Robert Langevin, the flutist, was Robert Langevin. Exemplary, night after night, season after season.
Concerts often end with a bang. This one ended where Schubert did: with his Andante con moto. Kind of strange—nice, too.
Jaap van Zweden does not do “outreach,” so far as I’m aware. He does not schmooze or hold forth. I have never heard him speak from the stage. I have never heard the sound of his voice, ever. Fine with me. He “outreaches” with his conducting, like a real musician.