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Birtwistle, Sibelius and Beethoven: Nicolaj Znaider (violin), Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, 27.10.2007 (BH)

Night’s Black Bird (2004)
Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 47 (1902-04; 1905)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-08)

“I certainly didn’t expect
von Dohnányi to use a Wagner-sized orchestra!” exclaimed my slightly shocked friend at the end of the night, after hearing his first live performance of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony.  Given recent performance practice, it was just a little startling after intermission to see the stage bulging with musicians, but the spine-tingling performance left no doubt that the conductor knew what he was doing.  The first movement was taken with maximum urgency, very fast, but with attacks and cutoffs as clean as they come, even given the large ensemble.  The andante smelled of spring, with a distinct change in mood and some high contrasts, yet nothing ever felt gimmicky.  In the third movement the cellos whisked us somewhere far away with some sensuous playing, and the buildup to the finale couldn’t have been handled with more finesse.  The last movement was explosive, as many good performances are, and yet again a reminder of why hearing music live should be on every human being’s “to do” list at least a few times a year.  At this point in my listening, and with so much music out there that I haven’t heard, this work is not exactly “most urgent,” but Christoph von Dohnányi placed it there for the night.

Before intermission, violinist Nicolaj Znaider (who looks to be like nine feet tall) strode out to do the Sibelius Violin Concerto.  Although he gave it his all, I didn’t quite feel that he had completely internalized the piece, commanding as his playing was.  He is clearly a very talented musician, but time and again seemed to be ever-so-slightly struggling with this very difficult concerto, as if its profundity were just over the top of the next hill.  The second movement, piercingly sorrowful, was the most successful, and again showed the orchestra in its most respectful collaborative form.

To open the program, von Dohnányi led an ominously precise performance of Night’s Black Bird by Harrison Birtwistle, and having heard it with Franz
Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra in 2005, it is wearing well.  The mood is set immediately with low strings and percussion, but later some unexpected outbursts appear, pulling up the entire orchestra in gigantic flourishes.  The cumulative effect is like walking outside of an decrepit old house and seeing the anonymous inhabitants slowly drawing the shades.  It is an exercise in the heavily shrouded.

But in the end, it was the taut Beethoven that left the most lingering impression.  Now and then I glanced over at a father and his young son sitting across the aisle, the latter so entranced that he was happily waving his arms, air-conducting most of the final movement.  In this case, it was hard to argue with an eight-year-old.

Bruce Hodges


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