It started with the eeriest, most unorthodox of pieces: the spot where Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances all meet at a cross. Here, under the careful baton of Pablo Heras-Casado, the belligerent and protuberant nature of each instrumental section in Bartók’s Dance Suite was caught. In this jagged work where folk music wrangles with early 20th-century dark foreboding, the strings of the New York Philharmonic were ever menacing with the morbid threats they exuded in fast, raging tremolos. Brass played their role of miscreants with accurate disturbing punctuation while the jingling spell of the triangle lingered slowly, inviting us to the dance.

Pablo Heras-Casado © Fernando Sancho at the Met
Pablo Heras-Casado
© Fernando Sancho at the Met
Heras-Casado enticed his ensemble to keep to an appropriate jerky staccato and encouraged each instrument to wallow in its own peculiar characteristics. At times flutes sounded solemn, indolent and torpid simultaneously. Violins had psychotic spells as they switched in a second from producing light shimmery sounds to being poised for a feral attack. Here all the sections sported the playground antics of dissonance; their task of rebellion was one carried out quite successfully.

Perhaps there is something deceptively easy about a more modern work where there is less organisation and the instruments want to usurp each other’s territory; where there’s a ‘free-for-all’ as to who enters next. For when the orchestra then trod the sweeter, more popular, more conventional lands of Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor, all of a sudden they seemed tethered by latches and hinges. Woodwinds were lucid and sublimely harmonious as they heralded the first movement – though they played in an even, unchanging dynamic. Throughout this part, the strings played in an unmatchable luscious tone; a body of sound that has clearly been tuned-up and trained over infinite hours of practice. Every attack was on point in its timing; no entrances of several groups were awkwardly partitioned.

Yet at the same time many exemplary facets also impeded adventurous exploration in this performance. Attacks on the strings were too sudden and brisk; many consecutive chords became separate choppy sounds. Little legato permeated the strings’ playing, differentiation in volume was mostly relegated to the divisions of extra loud forte and extra soft piano, and any kind of twisting of rhythm or experimental rubato was not to be heard here. Instead we were treated to a pre-meditated approach to time signatures and sudden attacks. The rudiments of playing a tough piece of this nature were highlighted well here; the rest – not so much.

Frank Huang’s performance of the concerto was technically accurate but artistically highly restrictive. Every note at the end of a phrase was held for a strikingly long period of time, leaving its consecutive peers somewhat estranged. Many a time notes were played statically and with little variation between them, and while the delivery definitely followed Bruch’s notation, it lacked smooth melodic flow. This was especially evident in the tranquil second movement where Huang’s tremolo could have been a lot more glistening, a lot softer and a lot more refined. Most crucially, changes in character between the motif on triplets and its imitation in a lower register were barely palpable. Although the performance improved in the perhaps easier, much bouncier final movement, the sprightliness and degree of staccato was still insufficient.

The auspices for the orchestra’s performance of Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony were promising when one heard the growly tone on lower strings that is responsible for inducting us into this work. From then on the trills on strings were forceful and accurate – but too quick; the attacks were piquant and abrupt – but did they always have to be piquant and abrupt? Every triplet on the violins was adeptly played but sounded exactly the same. There were occasional gentle and breezy passages on the strings but they dissolved rather quickly. In the third movement the waltz-structure of the principal theme was delivered in a fashion so square and choppy that dancing to it would have been challenging. It seemed that every section wanted to adhere to an exact rhythm. It brought this ensemble closer to a linear, military kind of playing and further away from the purpose of true musicality. Overall, an evening where excessively applied care did the music few favours.