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New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert – Stucky and Rachmaninov – Gil Shaham plays Barber

Gil Shaham
Classical Source

By Violet Bergen

Symphony [New York premiere]
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op.14 [1948 revision]
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Alan Gilbert, prior to the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Steven Stucky’s Symphony, asked the composer about the relevance of using this title today. Stucky responded that it is the most important musical genre, thus forcing him to become serious and concentrated in his composition. He emphasized that the emotional nature of the work depicts general, universal situations, and said that he wrote human – as opposed to abstract – music.
Symphony’s four interlinked movements, although totaling only 20 minutes, succeed in fulfilling Stucky’s consequential intentions. The opening ‘Introduction and Hymn’ begins with a querying oboe solo, and creates an eerie atmosphere over long chords in the strings. The mood turns intense and angry in ‘Outcry’, followed by emotional catharsis in the ‘Flying’ movement, which Stucky aptly describes as a “frenzied and glittery state”. The culminating ‘Hymn and Reconciliation’ combines all of the preceding emotional elements. The New York Philharmonic gave an accomplished performance of this weighty work, with the woodwind soloists particularly impressive.
Having been rejected by Iso Briselli, the violinist for whom it was originally commissioned, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto traveled something of a rocky road before its eventual premiere by Albert Spalding, America’s leading violinist of the day. Gil Shaham played the newly-published 1948 revision, created by publisher G. Schirmer from the composer’s personal copy of the revised score, as performed by Ruth Posselt and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on 7 January 1949. The differences between this version and the earlier edition of the piece concern dynamics and articulations.
Shaham’s lush tone on his 1699 ‘Countess Polignac’ Stradivarius was ideally suited for this lyrical work. He employed thoughtfully an infinite palate of shading, shaping the piece into a gripping narrative. He found the virtuosity in the rare fast passages in the opening Allegro, played precisely and with true intonation. Despite the quiet volume in the opening passages of the Andante, Shaham maintained extreme intensity, building to a passionate climax. He took an extremely fast tempo in the perpetual motion finale. An intriguing factor was the extremity of dynamic contrasts used in this movement, in particular at the softer end, as if to negate the movement’s flashy character. The orchestra matched Shaham in his insightful interpretation.
Rachmaninov nearly titled his final work (composed three years before his death in 1943) Fantastic Dances and considered calling its movements ‘Noon’, ‘Twilight’, and ‘Midnight’ as an allusion to the stages of life. The initial movement, marked Non allegro, is a march that feels much too long. Gilbert elicited a huge sound from the brass section, and the strings were incisive and driven in spiccatopassages, but the slower middle section was dull and directionless. The waltz of the second movement becomes increasingly deranged in nature, although Gilbert’s straight tempo made it seem rather square. Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow’s solo had the right amount of schmaltz. The finale is the most original and interesting movement, incorporating quotations from Russian Orthodox liturgical chants as well as the ‘Dies Irae’ from the Roman Catholic Mass of the Dead, which Rachmaninov infuses with unusual rhythmic patterns. Gilbert captured the work’s inherent excitement, with the cinematically passionate violin melody an extreme contrast to the ferocious winds and percussion at the work’s conclusion.