Driven to a creative fever by W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947), a work which left him “breathless”, Bernstein wrote his own Symphony no. 2, “The Age of Anxiety”, which premiered a mere two years later. The poem describes a kind of symposium, a gathering of friends, where alcohol fuels discussion, argument, relationships, and above all, questing. Quest for Bernstein is at the heart of the work: it was, he wrote, a “record of our difficult and problematic search for faith”. The piano soloist breaks through into the symphonic form, as a figure of Bernstein himself, mirroring his own response to the poem.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet © Kasskara | Decca
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
© Kasskara | Decca

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, at the piano, was a serious and reflective Bernstein. The thing that was lacking was irony, humour and the element of the cool. But the element of quest was there. It was there in the flexible timing, the give and take between orchestra and soloist, the dynamic interchanges, for instance, in the Prologue, which so clearly showed off the cut and thrust of a spirited gathering of friends who have no problem invading each other’s space.

One of the places in the work where the lack of irony was most felt, however, was in the Masque which followed the Dirge. The Masque is where the party gets jazzy, and the friends clearly let their hair down: Auden meets Harlem. Thibaudet was intent, earnest, getting it right as regards the notes but lacking in levity, unwilling to flaunt some style. That was a pity, and was part of the reason that the Epilogue didn’t feel quite as satisfying a moment of synthesis, when the quest ends in a sort of discovery of faith.

Schumann’s Symphony no. 4 in D minor, Op.120 opened sweepingly, with wonderfully warm strings – indeed the repeated waves of increasing sound from the lower to the higher was artfully done – the rising motif stayed in one’s head long after. And likewise in the finale there was great subtlety in the expressions of momentum – pushing forward, then pulling back – and in the moods which underlay them. The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin seem to command their energies very successfully; even when paces are frenzied and the mood is an invitation to boisterousness, the whole feels tightly reined, not likely to fall apart. I did find some of the solos in the Romanze movement a little lacking in distinction, and even in volume at times. But on the whole, this was a rendition which caught Schumann’s symphonic fantasy.

From the symphonic fantasy to the celebrated narrative of male fantasy, Richard Strauss’ Don Juan brought the concert to its culmination. The lush opening was captivatingly played – again, a sense of capacious freedom, but at the same time, no hint of the sloppily uncontrolled. This Don Juan was free to roam, completely unimpeded, until suddenly he is stopped short in his tracks. The change of tone, the interjections of solo instruments that hint at his comeuppance didn’t come across absolutely decisively, but there was an absolutely magnetic pause, an immaculately-placed caesura, after which nothing, even the powerful freedom of his last flings, can be quite the same again. This Don Juan ends on a lackluster whimper. A lackluster end is usually a criticism, but not, of course, when it is intended. The roguish old philanderer is meant to just peter out, and so he did, and the dramatic irony was very satisfying in its way.