Review: Odd, Delightful Juxtapositions at the Philharmonic

Posted April 28, 2018 12:59 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The New York Philharmonic’s concerts this week, conducted by Edward Gardner in his debut with the orchestra, project a delightful strain of perversity. Alongside a favorite of Gardner’s (Sibelius’ “Pohjola’s Daughter”), it juxtaposes a concertolike work that isn’t a concerto (Debussy’s Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra) with a concerto that isn’t quite concertolike (Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra), at least in the modern sense.

But this program, however oddly conceived, was given a lovely first performance on Thursday at David Geffen Hall.

Debussy, who showed little interest in conventional symphonic forms over his career, struck a glancing blow with his sizable Fantaisie (1889-90). With a bit more sustained pianistic display and a slightly greater sense of combat between pianist and orchestra, it could have passed as a concerto.

The composer, then in his late 20s, was evidently pleased with it, to judge from his tiff with composer-conductor Vincent d’Indy, who had proposed performing only the first of its three movements. Debussy toyed with the piece for seven more years, but it remained unperformed at his death, just over 100 years ago.

Leif Ove Andsnes, the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence this season, played the work with easy virtuosity and panache. (His residency concludes Wednesday with a solo recital at Geffen Hall.) As a Norwegian, he may have developed a particular affinity with the British Gardner, who has worked in Norway since 2015 as the music director of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. In any case, the partnership seemed complete.

Concertos for orchestra with shifting soloists or groups, commonplace in the Baroque era, made something of a comeback in the 20th century, largely on the strength of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943), which stands as one of the finest vehicles to exhibit the top-to-bottom quality of a modern ensemble. And Gardner’s well-judged, never-overblown performance showed a Philharmonic in fine fettle in this interregnum season before Jaap van Zweden takes over as music director in the fall.

The brass choirs, after an early slip, were deeply stirring right down to the final chord. And the woodwind soloists — including Yoobin Son, standing in as the principal flutist — were superb.

But the work Gardner lavished special attention on was the opener: Sibelius’ symphonic fantasy “Pohjola’s Daughter” (1906). Inspired by the Finnish epic “The Kalevala,” Sibelius sets out to depict, abstractly, the sage Vainamoinen as he falls under the spell of the sirenlike daughter of the north country.

Gardner said in preliminary remarks from the stage that the 15-minute piece offers one of Sibelius’ “most varied and expressive palettes,” and he proved that in a commanding performance. The brass chorales were especially striking, and Eileen Moon-Myers played the cello solos beautifully.


Event info:

The New York Philharmonic, Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; 212-875-5656, nyphil.org.