With the new year comes the final stretch of Jaap van Zweden’s six-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, which ends this spring.
But even when leaving, chief conductors do not conduct their orchestras. that a lot. Before this week, van Zweden had not stood on the Philharmonic podium since early October, and after Sunday he will not return until mid-March.
So Thursday’s concert at David Geffen Hall was an island in a sea of guest batons. And it was as Van Zweden-esque as a program could be, consisting of nothing but standards: the kind of music this maestro enjoys most and the kind he was brought to New York to impose discipline on.
Nowadays, if a major orchestra is going to play classical repertoire such as Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, as the Philharmonic did on Thursday, it tends to precede it with a short contemporary piece in the opening slot. It may be window dressing, but it has become the norm.
So it was almost radical to give that position to the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, probably the most performed song of the night. (For what it’s worth, the audience doesn’t seem to care: tickets to the weekend’s four performances, instead of the usual three, are nearly sold out.)
The Wagner turned out to be the weakest point of an otherwise very good concert. This was a fluid, not boring, version of the “Meistersinger” prelude, putting the winds and brass to the fore, their lines audible even in passages that usually highlight the rich strings. While the sound was not heavy, especially in strong dynamics, it still emphasized the unpleasant way in which, in densely concentrated music, the raw lucidity of the Geffen Hall acoustics can become a brittle rumble rather than a warm mix.
This was less of a problem for the minimalist ensemble of Beethoven’s concerto, although both here and in Brahms’s, there was elegance in the high strings without meaty weight; He still wanted more depth to the violin sound. But there was considerable spirit and evocative quiet play. Again and again in the concert, van Zweden emitted a dreamlike glow without losing rigidity or rhythmic momentum.
And the performance featured an immaculate soloist: Rudolf Buchbinder, who was approaching 80 and played with patrician reserve and clarity, neither indulgent nor distant. At the beginning of the second movement, his tone was movingly wounded by the orchestral aggression; In the end, he was the elegant companion of the ensemble.
Brahms’s symphony was also clean and simple: precisely done, its tempos reasonable. The second movement developed eloquently from quiet and funereal to noble and grand before a cordial third and a fourth that was more sober and reflective than furious. This was not an exciting performance, but it was a thoughtful and satisfying one.
And it was part of a trend. The last time van Zweden conducted the Philharmonic, in October, Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony were on the program. In those pieces and on Thursday, I didn’t sense the rigidly tense, polite, forceful quality that has marred some of his performances. These Beethovens and Brahms were strong without being overbearing, they had form but had room to breathe.
New York Philharmonic
This program continues through Sunday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.