There was a rather restrained air surrounding the New York Philharmonic’s second concert on its first visit to the Barbican with its new conductor, Alan Gilbert.This was partly because some of the programme’s pieces were subdued in nature, but partly because they were played in an excessively subdued manner.
This did not, however, prevent the evening from possessing a plethora of highlights. The most interesting piece was John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser, a highly charged setting of Walt Whitman’s American Civil War poem that describes a worker attending to the injured after a battle, working unremittingly as he shares in each soldier’s agony.
With his intriguingly firm voice and strong acting skills, baritone Thomas Hampson breathtakingly captured the physical and emotional drain being placed on this one individual. As he clasped his hands together, his eyes seemed to glaze over and his face to grow more withdrawn. He also sat down between verses suggesting that he was on the verge of collapse, but felt overwhelmingly obliged to rise again and carry on helping. In this instance, the orchestra captured the mood perfectly as Sheryl Staples’ violin solos soared above the rest of the strings.
In contrast, its performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 in F minor, or ‘La Passione’, was somewhat lacking in energy. What couldn’t be faulted was the intelligence and attention to detail inherent in Gilbert’s conducting, which produced a multi-faceted and almost other worldly sound, the strings bristling and shimmering to wondrous effect. The pursuit of ‘academic excellence’, however, was at the expense of some badly needed excitement, and even the more dramatic ‘Sturm und Drang’ movements (the second and fourth) felt a little underpowered.
The performance of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony No. 8 in B minor suffered from the same problem, although Gilbert’s command of the tempi, and the sound produced by the wind, could hardly have been faulted. In addition, some brilliant textural effects came to the fore in the first movement, whilst the sound was shaped particularly well in the second.
But it was in the performance of Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 that things really came good, partly because the orchestra seemed entirely suited to bringing out the subtleties in these works, and partly because the pieces (perhaps surprisingly) saw the group at its most explosive. The main programme, therefore, ended on a high, and the momentum was then maintained through two brilliant encores, which included Bernstein’s ‘Lonely Town’ (from On the Town).
There was enough here to show why Alan Gilbert was a good, if far from obvious, choice to head the New York Philharmonic. On the evening, he demonstrated an exquisite attention to detail, a brilliant command of tempi, and an ability to produce a sound from the orchestra that alluded to so much more. I just wish that in the Haydn and Schubert it had actually given it.