A fine evening of Finlandia with violinist Joshua Bell

By Raymond Beegle
Published 1/5/2015

SIBELIUS The Swan of Tuonale, Op. 22, No. 2; Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63; Finlandia, Op. 26, No. 7 MENDELSSOHN Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64.  New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, conductor. Joshua Bell, violin.  Geffin Hall, 12/30/2015

Maestro Allen Gilbert presented one of the finest performances of his tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in this reading of the brooding and complex Fourth Symphony. It is the darkest of the Sibelius symphonies, written when the composer was living in the shadow of a fatal illness, and Europe was moving irrevocably toward the outbreak of war. The structure is enigmatic, reflecting the wintry landscape of Finland, as well as the equally wintry landscape of the composer’s inner life. Gilbert has an unusually varied vision of the work reflecting moments of wonder, of human warmth, and graceful humor to offset the decidedly despondent cast that appears virtually unabated in other interpretations. It has not been in the repertoire for almost thirty years and the orchestra responded to its fresh artistic and technical challenges with unusual enthusiasm and reverence.

Joshua Bell’s brilliant but ultimately less successful performance of Mendelssohn’s concerto followed, evoking an ovation that was really due the Symphony.  Undoubtedly the violinist, with his sweet tone, technical assurance, and impeccable intonation, deserves acclaim, and there is something disarming about the way he thrusts his violin under his chin as if her were getting ready to show it who’s boss. However, Rilke’s advice to his young poet, that it is dangerous to dwell too much on one’s virtues, comes to mind. This is difficult for Bell because he has an abundance of virtues: technical mastery, an instinct for beautiful phrasing, opulent tone, bravura, and the like, but, as they were all a bit too conspicuous tonight, the lily, the work itself, was uncomfortably close to being gilded. His phrasing had its usual logic and grace but it was decidedly inclined to overstatement. His tempos bordered on reckless, at the expense of many sixteenth note passages, and at the greater expense of the breadth, and majesty of the entire composition. The ethereal andante movement for example, did not broaden and expand to contrast with its neighboring movements, and failed to cast its spell. Of course technical freedom is a joy to witness, but this stunning display of gymnastic form obstructed the work’s deeper meaning - the meaning so apparent in Menuhin, Oistrakh, or the aristocratic Grumiaux’s performances, the meaning that perhaps eluded Joshua Bell.

Finlandia suffered the fate of many chestnuts as the orchestra, in spite of itself, gave way to a glossy and glib recitation of this monumental work. One had a sense that the conductor feared the audience might become restive, hurrying the piece along, and peppering it with exaggerated dynamic effects. It seemed that he wanted to make his public believe something he did not believe himself. However the truth had been told, and told eloquently in the Fourth Symphony and in the enchanting performance of The Swan of Tuonela

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.