In back-to-back programs, the orchestra presented concertos by Beethoven and Benjamin Britten.
The violin concertos by Beethoven and Benjamin Britten are as alike as they are different, and over the past week, the New York Philharmonic presented them in back-to-back programs that gestured at their beauties without digging into them.
Both concertos begin with a rumbling in the timpani, barely the outline of a rhythm, but enough of a motif to inspire developments in the orchestral and violin parts that build to strenuous emotional heights. Both tax the soloist’s endurance with a series of technical hurdles, and challenge the orchestra to step up its musical partnership.
The Philharmonic nestled each concerto into the middle of programs that began with a brief curtain-raiser and ended with expansive, idiosyncratic symphonies. Last week, Stéphane Denève conducted the Beethoven in between Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers” and Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony. Then, on Thursday, Paavo Järvi led a more strongly conceived program that framed the Britten with Veljo Tormis’s Overture No. 2 and Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony.
If the concerts had similar setups, they had similar problems too. The Philharmonic, perhaps a bit on autopilot, began the concertos tentatively, smoothed out the drama of the symphonies and locked into isolated moments of dynamism. The openers, particularly the Tormis, emerged as effectively crafted short stories: internally coherent, absorbing, satisfying.
The unabashed emotionality of Britten’s concerto, which the pacifist composer completed after the outbreak of World War II, shows up in the solo writing in two ways: urgent, long-lined melodies of sweet despair; and raw plucking and feverishly cascading stops. Alena Baeva, making her Philharmonic debut, played the piece with assertive beauty and vibrato so quick, at times, that it seemed to disappear. With her understated legato and handsomely voiced harmonies, she made things sound easy. In guttural passages, she indicated Britten’s intentions without compromising her ability to return to lyricism.
Baeva, so facile in surmounting technical obstacles, had trouble turning up the temperature. The exquisite, full-throated lament at the center of the second movement gets volleyed between soloist and orchestra, and Järvi didn’t build a compelling progression out of the straightforward yet potent musical scenario. Baeva’s final re-entry was anticlimactic. In the cadenza, she dispatched technical challenges — the duetting of held notes and plucked ones was finely handled — without tapping into the writing’s existential anguish. She sounded more aligned with the tranquillity of the third movement.
In 1801, a few years before completing his Violin Concerto, Beethoven wrote in a letter of his encroaching deafness, “From a distance I do not hear the high notes of the instruments and the singers’ voices.” And yet he ended up producing a sprawling concerto that keeps the violin in the tippy top of its range as it leaps continually through intervals.
The violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider’s solo playing, decisive in bold passages and tender in soft ones, sometimes turned brittle. Quiet moments emerged like beautiful whispers that evaporated as they tapered off, and he sounded more at ease in stepwise passages than leaping ones.
Saint-Saëns’s Third, nicknamed the “Organ Symphony” for its prominent use of that instrument, is full of theatrical string writing that Denève shortchanged. The work came alive in its final stretch when he made the Maestoso section, which derives its power from majestically broad time signatures, sound like a king’s procession marching down the aisles of David Geffen Hall. The four-hand piano playing was simple yet magical, and the organist Kent Tritle seemed to be having a ball with his forte passages after teasing out the subtler beauties of earlier sections and their woozy prism of colors.
Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, like Britten’s Violin Concerto, can be considered a response to the horrors of World War II; at times you can almost hear the sound of an individual’s spirit writhing out of the grasp of a conflict that would snuff it out. And, as with the Saint-Saëns, the Philharmonic snapped into focus in the work’s final minutes.
Up until that finale, when he drove the Vivace at a thrilling clip into a climax of overwhelming impact, Järvi walked the middle of the road. The conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, chosen by Prokofiev for the symphony’s world premiere, left behind a gripping recording full of specific choices: a stiff, percussive celesta; ear-clearing winds screeching on high, blowzy brasses with something sinister to say. By contrast, Järvi’s adherence to conventional beauties sounded strange.
But he found Prokofiev’s individuality in the Vivace, where the violins sounded clean yet somehow breathless, and the clarinet, warm yet sharply etched. A threat bubbled up from the percussion section. The final moments of cataclysm arrived suddenly and all at once. It was almost worth the wait.