A concert juxtaposing masters and lesser-knowns can have two effects: it can illustrate the genius of the master, or it can unveil an unjustly neglected gem. New York Philharmonic’s recent offering accomplished both. The combination of Beethoven, Korngold, and Nielsen spanned a huge swath of what is loosely called Romantic music, demonstrating the peaks and valleys possible in the style.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

Beethoven’s Overture to Coriolan – inspired not by Shakespeare, but by a now-forgotten play by Heinrich von Collin – is always welcome listening, with its seething storminess balanced by a lyrical, pleading second theme before the hero’s defeat, then a coda dying away to nothing. Conductor Alan Gilbert led the ensemble through an energetic but overly correct reading of the dramatic work. The lyrical passages were beautifully shaped, but the more turbulent sections tended to fall into a metronomic precision that dampened their urgency. Still, precisely-played Beethoven will never fail to please.

Born 70 years after Beethoven’s death, Erich Korngold was a child prodigy whose compositional talents wowed Mahler and earned him premieres with esteemed performers throughout Germany and his native Austria. His orchestral works and operas started out in the late-Romantic vein, but Korngold found fame in Hollywood, where he composed scores for 20 films and won two Academy Awards. With his penchant for the cinematic, the New York Times once declared his cello concerto “more corn than gold.”

Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major, written in 1945, strikes something of a balance between Hollywood lushness and late-Romantic form, and is worth the occasional airing it gets in concert halls. Leonidas Kavakos seems to agree, judging from his committed and stylish performance. As a soloist Kavakos has not only the requisite virtuosity, but also a rich, sweet tone with depth and clarity; his rapport with the orchestra and the audience was immediate. He convincingly sang through Korngold’s angular melodies, and dove into the virtuosic perpetual motion passages with vigor. The piece lacks the memorable themes of the Beethoven and Brahms violin concerti; its strengths lie rather in unexpected harmonies and adventurous melodic shapes. Imaginative touches of orchestration, such as a judicious use of the celesta and well-crafted brass and woodwind textures, kept the work from sounding like yet another film score. Still, Korngold’s swooning phrases reveal where John Williams must have gotten his inspiration.

The real highlight of the program was Carl Nielsen’s Symphony no. 3, “Sinfonia espansiva.” A sort of Nordic Mahler, Nielsen achieves in gesture, harmony, and counterpoint the kind of grandeur that lay just beyond the grasp of Korngold’s melodies. Like Mahler, Nielsen’s music strives to encompass the many contradictions of the world, with sinister, cackling fugues right on the heels of idyllic pastoral scenes. Gilbert’s years as conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra have given him a feel for the Scandinavian aesthetic, and his Nielsen interpretations might prove to be his greatest strength. Each sonority in the work’s complicated score was both sharply characterized and well balanced, with unbridled energy during the intricate passages and cold Northern sunlight for the lyric ones.

According to composer Robert Simpson, a preeminent authority on Nielsen, “Espansiva means the outward growth of the mind’s scope and the expansion of life that comes from it.” The first movement starts with 26 slashing chords, all on A, accelerating into a grand, sweeping theme for full orchestra, fortissimo. While this movement was slightly overbalanced to the brass at times, Gilbert captured the fearless, optimistic spirit of the work, finding a tempo that worked for both the lyrical moments and the more impetuous passages.

The otherworldly second movement, beginning with haunting woodwind solos, climaxes into a sort of cosmic hymn, with two singers rising unexpectedly from the texture with a wordless vocalise. Soprano Erin Morley and baritone Joshua Hopkins blended beautifully with each other and the lush bed of strings and winds.

Nielsen said the third movement was “a thing that cannot really be described, because both evil and good are manifested without any real settling of the issue.” Its woodwind-dominated textures, widely modulating harmonies, and dry, impish character – all vividly rendered by the Philharmonic – typify one of the composer’s most original idioms, returning later in the Sixth Symphony and the Wind Quintet. In contrast, the finale is in Nielsen’s words “a hymn to work and the healthy activity of everyday life.” At Gilbert’s moderate tempos, the majestic main theme had ample weight and power, while he quickened the pace for a strong finish in the coda.

Gilbert and the Philharmonic plan to continue their advocacy of Nielsen’s music, with a recording of the complete symphonies and concertos due in 2015. If the cycle continues on this level, it will be well worth hearing; this performance of the Sinfonia espansiva was one of the highlights of Gilbert’s tenure at the Philharmonic.