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Britten, Mozart, and (Especially) Beethoven at the New York Philharmonic

New York
David Geffen Hall
10/29/2015 -  & October 30, 31,* 2015
Benjamin Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto in A major, No. 23, K. 488
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Inon Barnatan (piano)
New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden (conductor)

J. van Zweden (© Courtesy of New York Philharmonic)

Halloween weekend captured New York with the usual festivities. But for those who leave that holiday for children, the city’s venerable Philharmonic assembled a fine program to play on the spiritual senses. Conductor Jaap van Zweden took a welcome break from his ambitious touring responsibilities and tenure at the Dallas Symphony to deliver three diverse works by very different composers.

For a piece of such gravity, Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem has a comical history. Written on commission from the Japanese government on the eve of World War II, its intended purpose was to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese Imperial House. As a pacifist, Britten’s acceptance of the commission was far from enthusiastic: Japan was prosecuting a brutal war in China and its foreign policy was moving belligerently toward the fateful strikes of 1941. His choice of an abbreviated Requiem seems like a deliberate slap in the face. Indeed, the Japanese took it that way, angrily rejecting the work through diplomatic channels in objection to its mournful character and overtly Christian content. Britten finally dedicated the work to his parents. The Sinfonia pales in comparison to the more famous War Requiem, but under van Zweden’s baton it effused emotive power. Celebrating a war machine was furthest from anyone’s mind as its undulating themes developed an economically stripped down message of salvation.

In a radical shift to the classical repertoire, the Philharmonic’s Artist in Association, pianist Inon Barnatan, joined a reduced ensemble for arguably Mozart’s most famous concerto for the instrument, No. 23. Whereas the Britten piece was overwhelming, van Zweden’s conducting of this piece became almost timorous. Faultless technique translated into a thoroughly mathematical reading of the score, an approach that deprived it of passion. Barnatan’s playing reflected the general interpretation by remaining refined and pleasant rather than truly soulful.

The concert recovered in its second part, dedicated entirely to Beethoven’s monumental Fifth Symphony. With total command of the orchestra, van Zweden progressed through its powerful movements with authority. His powerful approach did not, however, succumb to the temptation, too often irresistible, to make the work sound grandiose. With careful gestures and well considered coordination, this worthy addition to the season’s roster of conductors deftly accessed the intimacy that lay behind the music that follows the boisterous first movement.

Paul du Quenoy



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