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From Start (Unfinished) to Finish (Finnish)

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
05/22/2008 -  May 23, 24
Franz Schubert: Symphony in B Minor (“Unfinished”)
Erich Korngold: Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, opus 35
Jean Sibelius: Symphony Number 1 in E minor, Opus 39

Glenn Dicterow (Violin)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, David Robertson (Conductor)

David Robertson may be the most exciting established American conductor. Although his main position is with the St. Louis Orchestra, one likes to think that he passed every possible hurdle when leading Paris’s Ensemble Intercontemporain for eight years, when every single work was an unholy challenge. After that, he could have sailed through the Phil’s program last night.

Which of course he didn’t. And that is exactly why he is so outstanding. Two of the pieces are very well known, but he made the Schubert “Unfinished” sound like a new work entirely. And if Mr. Robertson couldn’t quite lift Sibelius to new heights, the fault may have been in the music.

The Schubert is avoided by experienced listeners whenever possible. It is too familiar, played too frequently. So when this writer heard it again (reluctantly!) after a hiatus of three years, the realization came that this was truly tragic and truly great, and the myth that Schubert was unable to finish after two such intense movements might have been true. After an introduction which flirted with the pathos, Mr. Robertson held the movement so tautly that each note of the two exquisite themes was had a radiance all their own. The Andante con Moto was played pretty briskly, and Mr. Robertson brought out the brass and orchestral choirs like 18th Century chorales.

How can you go on after that? Well, Mr. Robertson has the answer. Tune in next week, when Luciano Berio orchestrates—with his own 20th Century inspiration—another Schubert symphony which was never finished. The title (which now has a bad name since it was kidnapped by the CIA), is Renditions.

The program ended with the Sibelius First Symphony, and Mr. Robertson made is sound better than it usually does in the first two movements. The scherzo—everybody’s favorite—was played so quickly that the kettledrums hardly had a chance to pound out their 7-note tattoo. But the finale (about which Sibelius amazingly said he was inspired by Berlioz) surged and flowed and surged again until the end.

Like Sibelius, Erich Korngold has had his ups and downs. He has been rated an undisputed genius (which he was), a sellout to Hollywood (not quite, since he always insisted seriousness in all his tasks), a Romantic composing far after his time (probably true, though Strauss got away with it), and finally, a genius again. His present upsurge may be due to Renee Fleming, who “discovered” and recorded an aria from his minor opera Die Kathrin, which is as ravishing and haunting as anything written in the 20th Century.

The Violin Concerto, played many times by Jascha Heifetz and recently by Gil Shaham, was essayed by the Phil’s long-time concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow with mixed results. The first two movements are hardly worthy of him. Played almost entirely in the high register, they were ersatz serious parodies of his wonderful movie music. So was the Finale, but this was a galloping galop, the quintessence of a hell-for-leather Warner Brothers swashbuckler. It sounded so good from Mr. Dicterow’s hands that I would have liked a screen to come down so we could see Errol Flynn and Merle Oberon riding through Sherwood Forest with the highest of spirits.

Harry Rolnick



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