Over the course of his tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert has championed new works by outstanding contemporary composers, but he has also conducted many classics of the orchestral repertoire, not least this refreshingly boisterous program of Beethoven and Brahms.
The former’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto opened the evening with Stephen Hough. In the first movement Gilbert evoked the full majesty that this epithet conveys, leading a resolute, martial reading and drawing out rather aggressive playing from the brass. Initially, pianist and conductor needed time to connect, but soon came together to rouse the listener.
Hough’s playing of the intimate and sublime second movement was especially delicate; he brought sensitivity and elegance to his approach without ever becoming cloying, and the performance concluded with a celebratory Finale marked by Hough’s increasingly virtuosic variations, displaying technical agility and a sophisticated capacity to imbue each bar with emotional resonance.
After intermission, Music Academy of the West’s 2017 Zarin Mehta Fellows, ten of the school’s most accomplished students, joined the Philharmonic for a spirited account of Brahms’s Third Symphony. Gilbert chose brisk tempos that limited the music’s sentimental impact, most notably in the melancholy third movement in which Brahms’s languishing lines felt uncomfortably rushed. Gilbert also relied heavily on the brass throughout, often overpowering the strings’ more subdued contributions.
Fortunately, the woodwinds drew beautifully rich harmonies in the idyllic second movement, and the evening culminated in a vivid rendition of the stormy Finale. Gilbert at his best, conjuring a churning tempest from the musicians that grew in intensity until a stirring climax was reached. But as quickly as it rose, the tide ebbed away with Gilbert conjuring gentle grace for the Symphony’s luminous conclusion.