In this interestingly unbalanced program from Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, the vibrancy and color of Bartók's Piano Concerto no. 3 were unfairly dwarfed by Bruckner's mammoth Symphony no. 8 in C minor. Standing next to this grandiose, 80 minute opus, the concerto (at roughly 23 minutes) lost some of its remarkable potency.

Yefim Bronfman © Dario Acosta
Yefim Bronfman
© Dario Acosta

The concert began with the piano concerto. Written during Bartók’s later years, this work was intended to be a gift for his wife, an accomplished pianist. The piece is infused with lovingly joyful tones mixed with conflictingly thorny landscapes. Yefim Bronfman brilliantly brought this concerto to life, shining spotlights on Bartók's flowing lyrical passages. Bronfman played with sparkling clarity, giving voice and purpose to every note; a feat that was impressive in this concerto, filled with melodic twists and tangles. Unlike more extroverted headliners, Bronfman is not a showman. His performance was selfless, surrendering to the music, which he served with unmatched care and skill.

The orchestra brought out a softer side of Bartók, bubbling with a gentle reverence that conjures countless pastoral images (not unlike the composer's Saranac Lake getaway where he penned the piece).The Allegro religioso was particularly moving. The interplay of the soft strings and piano created an almost effervescent spirituality that permeated and unified the section. This concerto is not without the composer's signature bite. Harmonic surprises grab attention and grow the concerto towards its inevitable, rapturous conclusion. Curiously tense intervals form melodies that flash with Bartók's fingerprint. Changes of color, notably in the orchestration of winds and percussion, showcase the contour of this piece, providing a sharp sense of perspective.

In the second half of the concert, Bruckner's Eighth Symphony was characterized by dramatic excess. Everything about this work screams drama. The music is unstable right out of the gate, and it constantly crests and falls with enough tremolo strings to make your wrists hurt. Brimming with musical angels and demons, Bruckner employs tell-tale Romantic lushness to build a rich sound world that quickly gains (and halts) momentum.

You like harps? The New York Philharmonic has three for this piece. One of the most cathartic moments in the program arrives when the three harpists, who are not playing for the bulk of the symphony, enter, at last, in a gloriously clear cadence. This new color, combined with the palpable anticipation of seeing the three harps in action, created a beautiful pay-off worthy of contented sighs.

After lengthy minutes of feverish tension, the third movement was a breath of fresh air. The divine beauty of this section was as welcome as a swimming pool in August, and after this respite, we plunged back into choppy waters for the finale.

Gilbert did a fine job of playing up the contrasts in this symphony, which certainly regained audience attention in the more drawn-out areas. But in a piece of this length and magnitude, a unifying arch is craved: show us how all of these pieces hold together, why one movement is inescapably bound to the next.

This symphony, coming after the success of Bruckner's Seventh, has a history of mixed reviews. It has been praised for its untamed humanity while being heavily criticized for being long-winded and verbose. Many audiences agree with the latter.

***11