The three subscription concerts proposed by the New York Philharmonic for this week did not seem to be placed under the best auspices. First the soloist – Leif Ove Andsnes – and then the conductor – music director Jaap van Zweden – announced their inability to fulfill their roles. Luckily, they were replaced by experienced musicians Alessio Bax and Giancarlo Guerrero, to make their belated debuts with the orchestra.

Alessio Bax, Giancarlo Guerrero and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

Interestingly enough, the programme remained the same despite its unconventional structure. As Andsnes intended, Bax prefaced the rendition of Robert Schumann’s famed Piano Concerto in A minor with a brief solo, more suitably played as an encore, the first of Clara Schumann’s three Romanze, Op.21. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition made sense, not only because Clara, a formidable pianist, was an interesting composer in her own right and the muse for her husband’s only completed piano concerto. Hearing the two works next to each other, as unbalanced as the pairing is, one is provided with a clear argument in favour of the special bond between the two Schumanns. The compositions share not only a tonality (A minor) but also a certain air. If one skips the initial, attention-grabbing explosion in the concerto’s Allegro affettuoso (the first eleven bars), the following melodic line can easily be perceived as a continuation of the Romanze’s ethos. (However, the lack of any cesura between the two works, that would have allowed the solo piece’s last melancholic accord to linger for a little bit, was a tad shocking).

Bax is a musician with a keen interest in chamber music sonorities. He brought different colours to almost every new rendition of the prevalent five-note pattern in the Romanze. In both the miniature and the concerto’s middle section, his warm tone and careful handling of every detail were remarkable indeed. Virtuosic passages were technically faultless with every sound crisp and clear. Bax and Guerrero did not seem to always agree on tempo, however, while pianist and orchestra were rarely having a real dialogue, navigating the score on apparently parallel paths. The characteristic Schumannesque shifts between “passive” sequences – evoking the character he named Eusebius in his writings – and the hyperactive, Florestan-reminiscent ones, were repeatedly too obviously abrupt. 

Giancarlo Guerrero conducts the New York Philharmonic in Brahms
© Chris Lee

Brahms’ Serenade no. 2 in A major ended the intermission-less evening clearly under Clara’s spell. Conducting at short notice a work that is hardly part of the standard repertoire, Guerrero led the orchestra with assurance, precise gestures and sporadic flashiness. In the absence of a violin section, he placed the 12 violas on his left, cellos to his right and woodwinds in the centre, with double basses positioned in an arch behind the cellos and brass. In the acoustically challenging environment of the Rose Theater, the overall sound was occasionally unbalanced. If the brief, rustic Scherzo was somehow stodgy, the Quasi Menuetto had charm, and the central Adagio’s thematic transformations were beautifully shaped. Principal oboe Liang Wang’s interventions – both solo and in dialogue with Anthony McGill’s clarinet or the cellos – were one of the great pluses of a rendering where Brahmsian dark undercurrents were less present. The Philharmonic has not played the Serenade in almost a quarter century. Full of gorgeous melodies, varied, the music is at the minimum a wonderful showcase for the woodwinds’ prowess. It deserves to be heard more often.