For his most recent subscription series concerts with the New York Philharmonic, music director Jaap van Zweden decided to bring together two 20th-century works that have more in common than it may appear at the first glance. As different as their styles are, Benjamin Britten and Dmitry Shostakovich were great admirers of each other's music. Britten's Violin Concerto and Shostakovich's Symphony no. 7 in C major had their respective premières only one year apart. They were both composed under the sign of Mars, the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and, respectively, the Second World War being major impetuses for their coming into being. Both scores end quite ambiguously. Their posterity has been quite different though. The Seventh Symphony's initial success was enormous. (Toscanini won a trilateral "competition" with Stokowski and Koussevitzky for the right to give the first American performance and the initial NBC radio broadcast reached several million people). Today, the work seems overrated. Many members of the musical public believe that there are many symphonic works in the 20th-century canon (including some of the Shostakovich's) that are more worth hearing. On the contrary, Britten's Violin Concerto has only recently started to get some level of notoriety, based more on recordings than on live performances.

Simone Lamsma © Steven Pisano
Simone Lamsma
© Steven Pisano

Among the true proponents of the concerto, one can certainly count young Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, who made her debut with the Philharmonic on Thursday night. Lamsma's first encounter with the Britten was in 2004, when she was preparing for the violin competition bearing the composer’s name (which she won). She played it many times since and her mastery of the difficult score, conceived in his pre-Peter Grimes years, when the young composer was still searching for his own voice, didn’t leave room for any doubt. On this occasion, she played the 1965 revision, her Stradivarius navigating between soothing and muscular, dispatching the cadenza with great ease, bringing out certain lyrical shadows in this apparently tuneless, grim and formally rigorous musical experiment. The members of the New York Philharmonic (the ensemble premiered the piece in 1940 under the baton of the Sir John Barbirolli) offered great support. Van Zweden and Lamsma have been successfully collaborating for more than a decade and the tacit understanding between them was palpable.

Lamsma is not a household name here in America but her deep sense of commitment, which she brought not only to the concerto but also to the encore – the Finale of Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Violin Op 11, No 6, another overly neglected 20th-century score – may well make her one. Van Zweden should quickly invite his protégée back to New York.

New York Philharmonic © Steven Pisano
New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano

After the interval, the Philharmonic offered an enthusiastic public the chance of a fresh encounter with Shostakovich’s Seventh. In terms of coordination and technical accuracy, it was an exquisite rendition. With his elegant and precise conducting style, Van Zweden reigned over the considerable forces competing for space on the crowded stage with an iron fist. He paced with great care the longer than long, Bolero-inspired, crescendo in the first movement and the modulation into E flat minor close to the march’s end was surprising and quite terrifying – just as it should be. The brass players truly acted in unison during the entire performance. One after the other, bassoonist Judith LeClair, oboist Sherry Sylar and flutist Robert Langevin displayed their exquisite legatos in their respective solos. That outstanding musician, clarinetist Anthony McGill, brought significance even to his smallest interventions.

Jaap van Zweden © Steven Pisano
Jaap van Zweden
© Steven Pisano

Overall though, there was a sense of a certain lack of both subtlety and of viscerality. Massive blocks of sound were often just overwhelming. The music’s debt to Mahler, especially in the Adagio, was less than clear. The not too many moments of intimacy in the score felt hurried. There was too little room for the composer’s doubts, humor and irony, that permeate almost each and every of his scores. But the listeners were happy.

****1