Putting side by side two famous works by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Jaap van Zweden and the musicians of the New York Philharmonic drew attention to certain common traits of their posterity. Both have been more appreciated by music lovers than by colleagues or critics. Their outputs are exaggeratedly viewed through a biographical lens, listeners finding “confessions” where there may not necessarily be any. As made quite clear in the two works played on Thursday night, both composers were exhilarating musical craftsmen with a penchant of mixing “high” and “low” art. There were moments of great delicacy and insight next to vain, melodramatic, statements, in turn counterbalanced by self-irony and, possibly, scorn.

Beatrice Rana and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

Despite Rose Hall’s unsuitability for large orchestral music, the Philharmonic’s brass did not sound overwhelming at key juncture points of Shostakovich’s mighty Fifth Symphony. At least from my vantage point, van Zweden did a very good job in avoiding dynamic imbalances between the orchestra’s sections. The musicians responded well to his always precise, elegant, but rarely subtle indications. Climactic peaks were escalated with steady regularity while the bleak arch of the third movement was a tad too lethargic and the music’s caustic spirit rather blunted. Multiple solo interventions (oboist Liang Wang merits a special mention) were handled with panache. Overall, it was a clean, honest, performance that didn’t bring any new insights to a beloved score.

The assumption could not be further from the truth when considering Beatrice Rana’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor. Just announced as the recipient of “Ronnie and Lawrence Ackman Classical Piano Prize at the New York Philharmonic, she breathed new life into a well-trodden warhorse by bringing out some of the score’s overlooked details. It was a well-thought version, anchored by many previous endeavours to tame a daunting composition. The overall architecture was clearly delineated but, in Rana’s fingers, it also acquired an unexpected airiness. All details – the rubatos, the theatrical mood transitions, the frenetic parallel octaves in the third movement – were tackled without any whiff of showmanship and with disarming simplicity. Phrases flowed into each other with great naturalness. With an immaculate technique, avoiding both empty playfulness and unjustified flashiness, her performance was another proof that approaching an inherently “grand” Romantic score with a cartesian spirit can generate wonderful results. 

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

Unfortunately, despite a heartfelt dialogue with Associate Principal Flute Alison Fierst, the pianist was not really followed in her quest for a novel approach to this score by van Zweden and his musicians. Their interpretation was correct but lacked thrills, while Rana’s was one of the most memorable debuts in the Philharmonic’s recent history. As an encore, Rana offered an extraordinarily delicate piano transcription of Saint-Saëns’ The Swan (Le Cygne), a tribute to the memory of Lawrence Ackman who has passed away just the night before.

This subscription series was the last in the Rose Theater. The musicians of the New York Philharmonic will return next season to the revamped Geffen Hall, promised to be a locus of great musical experiences. One can only hope.