I often think of Lorin Maazel as the American equivalent of Sir Colin Davis – they are both in their eighties and they both deliver steady, reliable interpretations that let the music speak for itself. Maazel’s return performance with the New York Philharmonic on Saturday re-affirmed my view.

Jennifer Koh © Juergen Frank
Jennifer Koh
© Juergen Frank

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture is as much his work as that of his friend and mentor Balakirev, who suggested the idea in the first place, more or less told him how to do it, and on whose advice he revised it several times in the ten years after it was completed. The most significant change Tchaikovsky made to the work is probably the chorale-like opening theme representing the calming influence of Friar Laurence in the turbulence of Shakespeare’s play. In Maestro Maazel’s hands, it was more prescient gloom and doom than evocative religious fervour. The second theme, depicting the rivalry between the Montague and Capulet clans, was deceptively subdued in its first appearance, but flashed its fierceness with a vengeance when it reappeared. The celebrated love theme was bland and certainly not quite up to snuff depicting the type of love that the tragic protagonists in the play eventually die for. Overall, the luminance in colours Lorin Maazel coaxed out of the orchestra was not enough to make up for shortcomings in dramatic impact.

Chain 2: Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra by Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski is a fine example of the aleatoric concept of composition that received much attention around the 1950s in which certain parts of the music are left to “chance”. The “chain” in the title refers to the music consisting of two strands which, as the composer says in an interview, are “two independent plots in which sections begin and end, not at the same time”. In Saturday’s performance, this work was a riveting experience – a cat-and-mouse game with the soloist and orchestra chasing each other, and some parts of the orchestra playing in free form at times. I can imagine that in the hands of a less confident and experienced conductor, this work could easily have descended into chaos. The soloist Jennifer Koh gave it all she had, extracting an amazing range of colours from the violin, and with such intensity that she had to tear off broken strands of the bow several times.

There has hardly been more intense and sometimes acrimonious debate among musical scholars about the real meaning behind Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D minor. In 1934, the composer had received popular acclaim for his groundbreaking opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Yet when articles appeared in the official media lambasting it after Stalin left halfway through a performance, Shostakovich started fearing for his own personal safety. In fact, he had been summoned for questioning, but got off only because the investigating officer had been arrested before he could begin the process. Shostakovich wrote the symphony ostensibly to restore his legitimacy in the eyes of the cultural police, but did he also intend underlying politically subversive messages? Lorin Maazel wasn’t quick to provide an answer to this question.

Although the signature opening was less assertive than I expected, the rest of the first movement pretty much stayed to script. The solo winds were suitably desolate and lonely but offered occasional glimmers of hope; the military march was trenchant and spine chilling; and the anguish and quiet contemplation cried out for recognition. For a moment I thought that the approach at the beginning of the Allegretto second movement was so decidedly Mahlerian that there couldn’t possibly be any mischievous hidden irony, until the bassoon began to clown away and put paid to any lingering doubt.

The stark sorrow of the third movement was made more poignant by the dialogue between the harp and flute, although the clarinet provided some relief to the desperately melancholic solo oboe. The acidity of the xylophone stood out against the backdrop of dirge-like low strings. All the suffering was brought to a close by very quiet violins and the harp. However, Lorin Maazel wasn’t going to let us off lightly, launching without a pause into the emphatic brass of the last movement. All was well as the lyrical horn above sharp strings provided hope, and the flute became chirpier. Yet the triumphant crescendo coming to an abrupt end planted a seed of doubt as to whether there was genuine reprieve.

Nothing much can go wrong in an evening with Lorin Maazel, and little did on Saturday, except perhaps for brief moments in the Tchaikovsky overture.