A Baroque Start to the New York Philharmonic’s Holiday

Posted November 23, 2018 8:17 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The holiday season began at the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday, with the crisp snap of strings and the dignified mellow blare of horns. Christmastime is associated with Baroque music — “Messiah,” the “Brandenburg” Concertos — and the orchestra was happy to oblige, with a program of Handel and Rameau at David Geffen Hall.

Leading the polished, if muted, festivities from the harpsichord was Emmanuelle Haïm, a French conductor making her Philharmonic debut. A specialist in this repertory, with an instinct for the crucial balance between energy and eloquence, she has given me two of my most memorable opera performances in recent years, Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” in Paris in 2012 and a thrillingly vigorous rendition of Handel’s “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno” at the Aix Festival in 2016.

As with many conductors who concentrate on early music, Haïm makes the strongest impression at the podium of the period ensemble she founded (Le Concert d’Astrée, formed in 2000). But she has become a go-to leader for modern orchestras making once- or twice-a-year forays into the early 18th century and thereabouts.

You can’t turn the New York Philharmonic into Le Concert d’Astrée in a few days of rehearsal, nor would you want to. Reduced to about 30 players for this program, the Philharmonic obviously uses modern instruments and has sacrificed none of its rich vibrato to conform precisely to Baroque style.

Yet it played on Wednesday with lean grace in Handel’s Concerto Grosso in G (Op. 6, No. 1); the first and third of his “Water Music” suites; and selections from Rameau’s opera “Dardanus.”

What was lacking was spirit, texture, variety. The Philharmonic went gamely through the motions of the Baroque, but there was little surprise or delight, essential in this repertory. The Handel pieces, radiating good cheer, were smoothed over, lacking in contrast; there was more color and range of mood in the 35-minute Rameau suite Haïm compiled, but also no sustained flair or danciness.

Tempos were basically moderate; I kept wanting more headlong vitality in intense passages, and more luxuriance at moments of slow melancholy. There was the sense of falling between stools I’ve often perceived when big symphonies have approached the Baroque: They’re not willing to go for the full-orchestra, Technicolor, often delicious arrangements that were in vogue in the middle of last century, but neither are they able to conjure the dizzying freshness with which specialist ensembles like Le Concert d’Astrée have spoiled us.

On offer, in any case, is a pretty, pleasant program — certainly nothing to challenge the steady digestion of Thanksgiving turkey and mashed potatoes this weekend.

New York Philharmonic

Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; 212-875-5672, nyphil.org.