• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

Review: The Philharmonic’s Maestro Revels in the Classics


Jan 8, 2024


With the new year, it’s the homestretch for Jaap van Zweden’s six-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, which ends this spring.

But even on their way out, chief conductors don’t lead their orchestras that much. Before this week, van Zweden hadn’t been on the Philharmonic’s podium since early October, and after Sunday he won’t return until mid-March.

So Thursday’s concert at David Geffen Hall was an island in a sea of guest batons. And it was about as van Zweden-esque as a program could be, consisting of nothing but standards: the kind of music that this maestro most relishes, and what he was brought to New York to enforce discipline in.

These days, if a major orchestra is going to play classic repertoire like Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, as the Philharmonic did on Thursday, it tends to precede it with a short contemporary piece in the opening slot. Window dressing, maybe, but it’s become the norm.

So it was almost radical to instead give that position to the Act I Prelude from Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” probably the most-played chestnut of the evening. (For what it’s worth, audiences don’t seem to mind: The weekend’s run of four performances — rather than the usual three — is all but sold out.)

The Wagner turned out to be the weakest point in an otherwise very fine concert. This was a flowing, not stodgy, take on the “Meistersinger” prelude, bringing the winds and brasses to the fore, their lines audible even in passages that usually spotlight the rich strings. While the sound wasn’t heavy, especially at loud dynamics it still emphasized the unpleasant way that, in densely massed music, the stark lucidity of Geffen Hall’s acoustics can tip into brittle blare rather than warm blend.

This was less of a problem for the pared-down ensemble in the Beethoven concerto, though both here and in the Brahms, there was sleekness in the high strings without meaty heft; I kept wanting more depth to the violin sound. But there was considerable spirit and some evocative hushed playing. Again and again in the concerto, van Zweden cast a dreamlike glow without losing rhythmic tightness or momentum.

And the performance boasted an immaculate soloist in Rudolf Buchbinder, nearing 80 and playing with patrician reserve and clarity, neither indulgent nor detached. At the start of the second movement, his tone was poignantly wounded in the face of orchestral aggression; in the finale, he was the ensemble’s graceful partner.

The Brahms symphony was also clean and straightforward: precisely done, its tempos reasonable. The second movement developed eloquently from muted and funereal to noble and grand before a hearty third, and a fourth that was more sober and reflective than raging. This wasn’t a thrilling performance, but it was a considered and satisfying one.

And it was part of a trend. When van Zweden last led the Philharmonic, in October, on the program was Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. In those pieces and on Thursday, I didn’t feel the rigidly tense, mannered, punchy quality that has marred some of his performances. This Beethoven and Brahms were strong without being overbearing, shaped but with room to breathe.

New York Philharmonic

This program continues through Sunday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.


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