Gilbert, soloists provide ardent advocacy for Nielsen with New York Philharmonic

October 11, 2012
By Paul J. Pelkonen

The New York Philharmonic presented two concertos by Carl Nielsen Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall.

In the last three seasons, New York Philharmonic music director Alan
Gilbert has championed the works of  Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) best
remembered for his six symphonies. Wednesday night’s concert focused
on Nielsen’s concertos: specifically the 1926 Concerto for Flute and
the earlier (and more frequently heard) Concerto for Violin.

The Flute Concerto led off, featuring Philharmonic principal flute
Robert Langevin as the soloist. This was the first of a planned set
of five concertos, one for each member of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, an ensemble that particularly impressed the composer after he heard them rehearse Mozart.

Langevin laid out the concerto’s playful melodic ideas, demonstrating
nimble flute techniques: fast arpeggios, flutter-tongue and trills.
Other principal winds in the orchestra engaged in call-and-response,
reminding one of this work’s origins in the world of chamber music for winds. Some balance problems occurred in the more boisterous orchestral passages, as sardonic commentary from the brass threatened to overwhelm the soloist, but those were swiftly corrected by Gilbert.

The Violin Concerto dates from 1911, that peak period before the First
World War that also saw the premiere of his Third Symphony. The work
is in an unconventional structure: two movements, each accompanied by an introductory section that bestows much expressive room for the
soloist. The opening Praeludium allows soloist Nikolaj Znaider to
begin with a long cadenza, bowing a long strings in a monologue before
merging flawlessly with the woodwinds to create a warm, song-like

Nikolaj Znaider

This concerto has never achieved widespread popularity. That might be
because Nielsen has the soloist work with, not against the ensemble,
repeatedly combining the solo line with small ensemble structures
within the larger orchestra. The long Intermezzo that opened the
second movement allowed Znaider to offer another long monologue for
his instrument with unusual chord voicings that gave his instrument a
ruminative tone. The final Rondo asked the soloist not for flash and
dazzle but for the richer rewards of genuine cooperation and

The second half of the evening featured Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular
Second Symphony, the “Little Russian.” Incorporating Russian folk
songs in each of its four movements, the Second briefly bridged the
gap between the cosmopolitan composer and the “mighty handful”,
composers who chose to gain their musical inspiration from native
Russian sources.

Philip Myers played the mournful opening horn melody with power and
lush, plangent tone. Alan Gilbert brought the rest of the orchestra
into the movement expertly, driving his team hard and creating a sense
of urgency in the expansive first movement. The quasi-martial slow
movement came across playfully, like a march of toy soldiers led by
the woodwinds.

That march became a gallop in the hard-charging scherzo, with the
string sections wrestling over possession of the movement’s first
subject. Gilbert refereed with his baton, slowing down to a trot for
the central trio before returning to race through the ritornello. The
final Rondo opened with an enormous tutti statement from the whole
orchestra, triggering a set of theme and variations that moved forward
in an exhilarating rush.

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic will repeat this program 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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