Splendid Bruckner Sixth in a concert of two B's

By Raymond Beegle
Sunday, February 14, 2016

BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 11. BRUCKNER Symphony No. 6 in A Major. Juano Mena conducts New York Philharmonic. James Ehnes, Violin. David Geffen Hall, Saturday, January 30, 2016

Both the Beethoven concerto and the Bruckner symphony are monumental works, and they have over the years received monumental performances. One can cite the New York Philharmonic recording with maestro Bruno Walter and violinist Zino Francis Scotti, or the live-recorded Bruckner performance with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. There are a few others, and although it is a wonderful boon to have great musical events documented and at one’s disposal, these rare historical achievements are in our ears when we sit down expectantly in a concert hall and the current messengers of music stand before us.  Of course not all performances, even by the finest artists merit the mysterious adjective “great,” but they will almost invariably deserve the secondary “very fine,” and the public, even with memories of Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, and Francis-Scotti, must be grateful and deeply respectful of the “very fine.”  

Tonight, violinist James Ehnes’ intonation was impeccable, his articulation in the rapid passages rang brilliantly, and he spun magnificent, singing pianissimos. Perhaps he spun them a bit too often, diminishing their effect through the course of the concerto. Although his lower register was rich and resonant, the upper middle and top often became slim and wiry at higher dynamic levels. Beethoven demands an opulent sound for his remarkable melodic lines and a heroic approach for the temperament of the work. That kind of tone was not in this artist’s vocabulary and heroism was replaced by solid, businesslike, respectable playing. Tempos, we assume agreed upon by conductor and soloist, tended to slip forward with little traction so that the lush orchestral sonorities had no time to resound, and the grace and grandeur of the phrases were somewhat minimized. 
Bruckner’s 6th symphony was a much happier undertaking. When one compares the second movement to the earlier mentioned Furtwängler performance, one might be disappointed, but Furtwängler conducted his Berlin Philharmonic weekly, they were as one, lived and breathed music together for years. Bravo to maestro Juanjo Mena, who managed such breadth, vision, suppleness and clear dramatic shape to such a complex work with precious few rehearsals, and only a casual acquaintance with our orchestra. The sound produced by New York Philharmonic’s full complement of musicians tonight was ravishing, and the various choirs of brass, strings, and winds spoke with impeccable ensemble. “Very fine” proved to be most satisfying tonight while “great” remains in the future, a rare, bird that flies by only too infrequently