Magnus Lindberg’s music draws upon the idioms of the classical canon, even as it exploits the myriad innovations and stylistic resources available to contemporary composers. His Piano Concerto no. 2, given its world premiere by the New York Philharmonic on this program, flits between key signatures rather than staying rooted in strict atonality. Its challenge and its audacity come not from the harmonies but from the form; its constant stream of dense and intense writing has hardly any respite in its twisted journey through tonal thickets.

Magnus Lindberg © Hanya Chala / Arena PAL
Magnus Lindberg
© Hanya Chala / Arena PAL

Lindberg writes with deep knowledge of each instrument’s capabilities—including the exceedingly virtuosic piano score, played with complete mastery by Yefim Bronfman. Many moments in the piece bring out this sensitivity, including a beautiful pentatonic passage for the piano with a few solo strings, and another featuring brilliant close intervals in the horns.

The single-movement piece begins with dark, low chords, rising quickly to a movie-music climax. The concerto spends most of its time at that fever pitch, with one peak tumbling after another, and a complicated texture even when the ensemble thins out a bit. There are many glimmering references to Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, which Lindberg cites as inspiration, but unlike Ravel’s work, Lindberg’s concerto offered little ebb and flow of energy. Even the transitions were intense. With Bronfman leading, of course, the performance was impassioned and pitch-perfect. One hopes for more hearings of Lindberg’s music to sort out its complexities.

In contrast, Dvořák’s crowd-pleasing Carnival Overture, which opened the program, offered a nice balance between bustling and lyrical sections. The central English horn solo is smooth and inward, almost a separate piece from the hectic main material. The passage that sounds like Arabian rip-off music—perhaps the least interesting part, as it serves as one long transition back to the frenetic coda—featured a bell-like piccolo solo and round but bouncy brass. Throughout, the strings played with both precise articulation and irresistible forward momentum.

A chestnut of the standard repertory, filled with gorgeous melodies and foot-stomping drama, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor can be surprisingly precarious to pull off. If played imprecisely, the many repeated figures and dense textures can sound flabby and dull. But the Philharmonic is nothing if not precise. Gilbert was vigorous from the start, leading the brass in the hearty fanfare that Tchaikovsky describes as the force of fate preventing happiness. A languishing waltz follows, then a heroic theme in major mode, which seems to save us for a moment, only for the fate motive to return and dash our hopes again. The waltz, in an irregular 9/8 meter, actually could be re-written as a 3/4 bar plus a 3/8 bar; this rhythmic asymmetry endows the movement with a nervous restlessness. In Gilbert’s hands it was elegant, but less troubled than it might have been. The quiet moments, however, had a time-stopping quality and a clean, pure timbre, seemingly drawn from Sibelius.

The second movement begins with one of Tchaikovsky’s most poignant melodies. It is first played by the solo oboe—beautifully phrased by Liang Wang—then sung by various instruments with countermelodies over it, such as a variation with beautiful cascades from the woodwinds. As the movement ended, a chorus of hacking, sniffling, and then snickering rose from the audience, so much so that Gilbert, waiting for silence, dropped his arms and shot us a glance. His rapid pace brought levity to the all-pizzicato scherzo, though the quick clip sacrificed some bite. At that tempo, the quicksilver piccolo entrances during the trio are especially treacherous, but Mindy Kaufman played them with nimble dexterity.

The fourth movement—grand, urgent, epic—can wash right over you. The Philharmonic’s reading, while precise, erred on the side of grand. With Gilbert’s lively pacing and a brass section you feel in your feet, it couldn’t help but be exciting. But the frenetic strings and wind passages swirling around the core of the descending minor scale theme were too legato to be distinct, and while the performance had plenty of energy, it missed some of the frenzy in the greatest performances. Nonetheless, Tchaikovsky knows how to bring an audience to its feet, and so does the New York Philharmonic.