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To Be Quite Franck

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/04/2005 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Leonore Overture # 3
Alfred Schnittke: Concerto Grosso # 5
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony # 5

Gidon Kremer (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Mikko Franck (conductor)

The debate rages on about authentic performance practice, the period instrument people taking up arms against the modernists every time that a piece of Classical music is played or recorded. It may very well turn out to be the most interesting intellectual identifier of our age when music history textbooks are written in the next century, since contemporary music has proven such a nest of sophistry. This weekend at the New York Philharmonic I thought a lot about the performance of Haydn and Mozart, although not during the reading of the Leonore Overture No. 3 but rather that of the Symphony # 5 of Dmitri Shostakovich.

On the podium was the young Finnish conductor Mikko Franck, who has a rather odd conducting habit. Sitting in an upholstered wing-back chair, or rather not sitting in it, he acquitted himself with dignity and aplomb in the absence of Lorin Maazel. Mr. Franck has no obvious physical reason for employing the seat and tends to pop out of it whenever the music is especially inspiring, which happened a lot with the aforementioned two pieces.

The Beethoven was a noble reading and the orchestra, with virtually all of the first chair players missing, sounded well blended and technically sharp. Having the offstage trumpeter intone from the back of the hall was an ingenious stroke and ratcheted up the excitement factor significantly. Unfortunately, the ensemble flagged at just the wrong time, when the descending and ascending phrases in the violins show how exciting playing a phrase backwards can be.

But it was the familiar Shostakovich, performed in an unfamiliar manner, that really captured the ear. There is much anecdotal evidence about the reactions of the crowd at the work’s premiere, but, since none of us were actually there, it is highly speculative to be so certain about the composer’s intentions (and when you extrapolate this thought to Mozart, all bets are off). In Mr. Franck’s version, this symphony is filled with beautiful music, a fact that I suspect we all recognize subconsciously, even if the political raises its ugly head in most standard versions.

The Largo was incredibly well played, with assistant concertmaster Sheryl Staples extraordinary in rich and polished tone. Both she and Glenn Dicterow are relatively young and I hope that she isn’t simply waiting for him to retire. She can play rings around several other leaders in the U.S., but that pesky high New York Philharmonic salary might keep her indentured for far too long. Of course, I wouldn’t move out of town for any other job either.

Life’s too short. I have heard dozens of pieces by Alfred Schnittke and never loved a one, so I bagged the concerto and enjoyed that rarest of events on the Lincoln Center balcony, a warm day in a New York November

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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