It is hard to imagine that many of the world’s major orchestras will begin their seasons this year with only three people on stage. Yet in this fascinating programme which promised much and never quite delivered, New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert was joined under the proscenium arch only by timpanist Markus Rhoten and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. The rest of a reduced Phil was arrayed around the hall, mostly at the back, in a continuation of the spatial theme that had closed its last season at the Park Avenue Armory.

Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee / New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee / New York Philharmonic

György Kurtág’s … quasi una fantasia… employs small forces – not an orchestra but “groups of instruments” – to characteristically powerful effect. The title brings to mind the two piano sonatas of Beethoven’s Op. 27, although this is a chamber concerto rather than a solo work. Of Beethoven’s two form-busting pieces it is the lesser-known first rather than the famous “Moonlight” sonata that Kurtág specifically references: the four linked “movements” of Beethoven’s work are taken as an initial structure here too, although other similarities are few. Combining the concision of Webern with something of the childlike quality of Schumann, the piece starts with deceptively simple descending scales on the piano, with distant flutters of bells: the scales, if not again heard with such delicacy as played here by Andsnes, are implicit in the music throughout. There is more than a hint of the funeral march of Webern’s Op. 6 to the second “movement” – marked “Wie ein Traumeswirren”, or “Like a nightmare” – which is quickly dissipated by the clustered, percussive recitativo third. A concluding “Aria” returns to the cradled opening, its lullaby rocking in the piano and later elsewhere as eerie harmonics and disembodied tones emerge from recorders and harmonicas. As with Beethoven’s sonata the opening motifs return, changed, descending slowly on the timpani and petering out quietly.

It is some statement of intent to open with Kurtág, let alone Kurtág with such sparse forces. It was Andsnes who apparently suggests the juxtaposition, and whilst the C minor Beethoven concerto that followed might have had much to say about classical antecedents for Kurtág’s simple gestures and complex developments, the works as presented instead seemed entirely separate. (Not least, it must be said, as all the orchestra’s chairs had to be laid out in between.) Whilst Gilbert is a notable conductor of 20th-century music, his Beethoven is not quite of the same calibre or predictablity, even if there is nothing that grates. There was a sense, in the Philharmonic’s accompaniment here, of trying to break Mozartean shackles, yet Gilbert’s eagerness to push on, particularly in the rondo finale, often jarred with Andsnes’ more restrained approach. Shortness of phrase in the first movement aside, there was also an odd lull in the slow movement when balancing issues between flute and bassoon made one half of their duet completely inaudible. The finale, however, suggested there was much to hope for with, with a vehemence and attention to rhythm that drove the music propulsively forward.

At least you know what you’re getting with Andsnes. Here was unfussy playing allied to a precise technique that was always immaculate in its voicing, long in its legato, and even in tone. Not for him the structural flow of a Barenboim or the impulsive glee of an Argerich, but Andsnes’ approach certainly pays dividends. The first movement here built steadily towards a cadenza which traded fireworks for attention to harmonic progression, the second remained shapely in its restrained lyricism, and the third saw Andsnes letting go with a puckish wit. It was a pity, then, that he and Gilbert truly combined only in the final pages.

Hopes of a modernist reading of Le sacre du printemps were raised by the opening Kurtág, but Gilbert instead presented a Rite that sacrificed violence for lyricism. The Rite will presumably be heard innumerable times in this, its centenary season, with many different approaches to be found. While many of those will no doubt be very interesting, any performance must encompass the profound violence that lies at the stone heart of this work. Here, gorgeous wind work and seductive colourings reminiscent of Stravinsky’s French contemporaries promised much as spring danced in, but the blood and guts only really emerged in terms of volume, rather than tonal or rhythmic disruption. Both the parts’ concluding dances – of the Earth and of sacrifice – were whipped up viscerally, but the languidity of what preceded them neutered rather than increased the overall effect. Still, this was a predictably rousing start to the Philharmonic’s season.