Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic capped off an interestingly programmed Wednesday night concert with a spirited, booming account of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. For a piece so famous, this vastly influential work doesn’t get all that many performances in New York, although with its centenary next year I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more.
From the Rite‘s catlike beginning, through all the rhythmic blows and stutterings that make it such a difficult piece for an orchestra, and right up through the end, Gilbert showed off his and the Philharmonic’s mastery of rhythm, dynamics, and tone. You could really feel what got that first audience so riled up back in 1913 (though the famous riot resulted from a performance of the Nijinsky ballet, not just the music). This is a piece the most bored audience member would have a hard time snoozing through, especially in the stormy Part One, no dancing needed.
The first half of the concert opened with a fascinating short piece by the Hungarian composer György Kurtag, his Op. 27, No. 1 called …quasi una fantasia…for Piano and Groups of Instruments. Those groups were in the back of the house, invisible to the audience unless we twisted our heads around. On stage were only the conductor, tympanist, and the evening’s soloist, Leif Ove Andsnes (pictured) at the piano. Beginning with a languorous descending major scale on the keyboard, the piece stretched into a mysterious, dim and hollow piano-and-percussion query; string lines like spiderwebs and blasting brass snuck with subtle controlled chaos into the picture and the whole thing took on an Elliott Carter-esque tinge, affecting and thought-provoking.
Pairing this with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor probably was imagined as a thought-provoking combination, but it took so long to re-set the stage that the eye-opening Kurtag was nearly forgotten when the Beethoven commenced. In the dramatic first movement the technically superb Mr. Andsnes played a wonderful cadenza and throughout showed off a feathery touch and the smoothest runs and arpeggios imaginable, yet I kept hearing tiny time warps in the piano-and-orchestra passages. (Too, the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall were a little less than kind to the piano’s lower register and to some of Beethoven’s orchestral rhythms.) Similarly in the slow movement Andsnes seemed at moments to be playing with time to try to milk emotional subtleties from passages that neither had nor needed them.
My favorite part of this work is the melodic and energized third movement, and here the rondo tempo seemed just right, piano and orchestra settling gently into a groove like a bird riding the wind. One quickly layering string-section passage in the middle of the movement shone like church bells, and the concluding chords rang a decisive all’s-well, whereupon the crowd bestowed warm applause upon the performers and particularly the winning Mr. Andsnes. It was a solid set-up for a resounding Rite of Spring, Gilbert’s first with the Philharmonic, and for the launch of the orchestra’s new season.