Combining Bartók’s second Violin Concerto with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was a bold move for Alan Gilbert. Bartók’s music is rough around the edges, abrasive and severe but also tepid in parts. Beethoven, on the other hand, is wild and bombastic; The Eroica Symphony is a larger than life work. Performing the two pieces in a single evening was ambitious, but proved triumphant.

© Chris Lee
© Chris Lee

Beginning with an enchanting harp line, the New York Philharmonic unleashed Bartók’s second Violin Concerto. A seminal work, Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 requires a level of expressivity that is informed yet intuitive. Violinist Lisa Batiashvili did just that. Playing with utmost sensitivity, Batiashvili faced the severe discord in the music head on; just before diving into a heady cadenza in the first movement, Batiashvili sounded slinky and sinister as she artfully played a series of quarter tones.

Jumping seamlessly from discordant, aggressive sounds to broad, romantic lines, Batiashvili also captured the tranquility of Bartók’s work. Revealing her innate ability to connect with the music, Batiashvili’s playing was organic and naturally expressive. Whether the music was fast or slow, severe or humourous, Bathiashvili beckoned a variety of colours and characters. Her performance was unpretentious and spot on.

In the second half of the performance, the NY Philharmonic tackled Beethoven’s iconic work, the Eroica Symphony. A symphony with a breadth of scope and expressivity, this altered the course of music making and has resonated with audiences for centuries. Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man, the New York Philharmonic delivered a flawless performance of the unending struggle that defines this symphonic work.

While the New York Philharmonic has performed this symphony several times in the past, Wednesday night’s performance, conducted by Alan Gilbert, confirmed its timeless majesty. From the ferocious battle scene in the first movement to the funeral march in the second, the vivacious scherzo to the grand finale, the New York Philharmonic charged through the symphony, illuminating all of Beethoven’s musical nuances. Throughout the work, the New York Philharmonic played in constant dialogue; the pace of the symphony never slowed, the ferocity of the hero’s struggle never dimmed and the audience felt intimately tied to this heroic piece of music. As Alan Gilbert admitted in a pre-concert interview, ‘something happens in the performance each time that feels newly amazing.’ Gilbert was right, and the New York Philharmonic brought that transformation to life.