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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
03/11/1999 -  
Béla Bartok: Violin Concerto #2
Johannes Brahms: Symphony #2

Gil Shaham (violin)
New York Philharmonic, Paavo Jarvi (conductor)

I’m a little out of my element here but I understand that one of the secrets to a winning basketball team is a player who doesn’t appear in the starting lineup but rather comes off of the bench at critical times to enhance the performance and character of the team. For this musical season in New York, that player is Paavo Jarvi who substituted for Riccardo Chailly when the principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra hurt his shoulder earlier this year. Maestro Jarvi conducted a sensitive performance of the Mendelssohn 4 and then followed with a gorgeous Mahler 4, forging his personal conception into the collective psyche of the orchestra and producing a fine interpretation on short notice. Last night Järvi stepped into the breach once again, substituting for Danielle Gatti who was indisposed, and leading the New York Philharmonic in a beautiful evening of Bartok and Brahms.

One of the works that Bartok studied in anticipation of writing his concerto was the brand new Violin Concerto (To The Memory of an Angel) by his dear recently deceased friend Alban Berg. Gil Shaham’s conception of this seminal work of twentieth century music is close in spirit to the Berg as the Israeli violinist emphasized the lovely melodic aspects of this Hungarian masterwork rather than the tense, barbaric side. Playing an elegant Stradivarius, Shaham’s fingers of the left hand were vibrating seconds before he bowed his first note and one realized instantaneously that his take on the Bartok was far different than the more exciting but less beautiful approaches of the two current masters of this piece, Kyung Wha-Chung and Midori. Shaham and Jarvi were obviously in sync in their appreciation of the rhapsodic nature of the first movement, angular in harmonic theory, but smooth in aural impression. Like another Israeli, Itzhak Perlman, Shaham looks for the inner beauty in the music of the 1930’s although sacrifices a lot of the drama and power inherent in both the Berg and the Bartok. Although I personally prefer the more exciting approach, I was perfectly content with the mellifluous side of the dissonant school (although the Philharmonic crowd was its usual restless self when anything written after 1890 is performed).

Shaham is also reminiscent of Perlman in his hand strength and uses his large fingers ala Oistrakh to magnificent effect. It is amazing that such dexterity can accompany such vibrato, but a few of the greats have mastered this style of play. The second movement was pure gold with the sensuous violin soaring above the quiet effects of the attentive ensemble (apparently they perform well for everybody except Masur these days) and the last movement a study in virtuosity. It is a shame that so few people were there to hear this fine music making and that so few of the few in attendance were in the least bit appreciative. The audience response was underwhelming.

This is the second Brahms Second that I’ve heard in recent weeks and the inevitable contrast to the fine playing of the Concertgebouw leaves the Philharmonic in the shadows. Having said that, this performance was, I believe, as good as it gets with the New York ensemble. Järvi, as he did with the Philadelphia, drew every last ounce of ensemble strength from his forces and shaped a finely phrased version of the old chestnut, suffering only from the tinny string tone which is New York’s curse. The brass section was superb and overall this would have been a fine performance if only the sound of the Amsterdam orchestra were not still in my ears.

So what do we learn from all of these successful guest conductor appearances? I for one am no longer scheduling any Masur concerts as I hate to write a bad notice if I can avoid one. Like many other inconveniences in New York, one must learn to endure and wait for improvement. I don’t suppose Maestro Järvi would be a frontrunner is this most political of appointments, but we in this city could do much worse than having him as a fresh and eager music director. The old guard is soon departing and time is on the audience’s side.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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