In the 15,606 concerts given by the New York Philharmonic and its predecessors before this, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had received nearly 200 renditions. That’s an average of about 1 in 80 performances, but this was the first time in his five-year spell as Music Director that Alan Gilbert had essayed the Ninth, and indeed the first time in nearly a decade that the Philharmonic had played the work. To top it all, the Philharmonic in conjunction with the Royal Philharmonic Society, commissioned Mark-Anthony Turnage to compose a companion piece to the Ninth, in celebration of the Society’s bicentenary and as a reminder of one of its many contributions to musical history, the commission of Beethoven’s longest, greatest symphony.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

Frieze is the result. Heard at the Proms this summer, the short, four-movement work received its US première here not long after Turnage’s Anna Nicole also had its first performances under the banner of the soon-to-be defunct New York City Opera. Wisely enough, Turnage has kept some distance from Beethoven’s imposing example. The first movement opens with bare fifths, like the Ninth, albeit with a distinctly post-industrial metallic clang. Turnage inverts the second theme of Beethoven’s slow movement to provide the second “theme” of his own. And in his programme note, Turnage suggests that his finale’s motoric energy pays homage to the finale of the Seventh, although to my ears it lacked that confidence, sounding more like the Second or Fourth.

Beethoven, though, is certainly not the only example. Jazz is prominent, particularly refracted through the sounds of Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps that American influence explains why this piece takes much of its interest from rhythm: toe-tapping, unexpected, submerged, implied, and more. Catchy ostinati infuse the opening movement, slight syncopations unmoor the second, and the finale is all bounce. Aside from that, Frieze is on the one hand peculiarly insistent and on the other unnervingly directionless. The bludgeons that finish off the first movement were menacing in Gilbert’s savvy hands, but where they came from and why they were there were open questions. The slow movement meandered along, the Beethoven quotation plainly noticeable in the violins but not really doing a lot, until it returns, distorted, a bit later. Perhaps all that was related to the artwork from which Frieze takes its name, Gustav Klimt’s astonishing Beethoven frieze, now on show at the Vienna Secession. The frieze starts off inchoate and ends in a flourishing triumph of the arts – a victory presumably here represented by the Ninth itself, with Frieze playing a more uncertain role. It’s amiable enough, fizzy even and it was precisely and energetically played by an orchestra increasingly and necessarily keen to take on 21st-century music.

Gilbert, in a chat with Turnage at the start of the concert, remarked that pairing Beethoven with recent compositions reminds us that even Beethoven was contemporary once. I’d suggest his music ought to be and really is contemporary now, but the point stands. To a large extent Gilbert’s success has relied on refusing to programme endless reruns of the canon, bringing renewed focus to more recent repertoire. That success can’t disguise the fact that he is still very much finding his way with the Mozarts and Beethovens of the concert season. Aside from a concerto with Leif Ove Andsnes last year, which had been relatively promising, this was the first Beethoven I had heard from Gilbert, and it found him at his least convincing.

Gilbert seems to approach his Beethoven, as so many conductors do now, under the influence of the period-instrument movement and at a step away from the unabashed Romanticism of times past. It’s fast, vigorous, and pretty violent. So we had Beethoven-as-arsonist in the first movement (or at least Beethoven throwing a tantrum). It was taken so quickly and dashed off with so little sense of mystery that most of its developmental potential had evaporated before the development proper, and certainly long prior to that shocking timpani crash of recapitulation. Gilbert’s technique relies on downbeats in the Classical and Romantic repertoire, and the hammering brutality that that can sometimes engender was ever-present here. That meant that there was little contrast to be found with the Scherzo, which nevertheless was played with verve by the Philharmonic’s strings. They were on achingly beautiful form for the slow movement, although here the rest of the orchestra was surprisingly sloppy, which didn’t help Gilbert achieve the necessary long line. The finale was barely more successful, especially in an opening recitative taken so fast that vital cello rhetoric was simply burned through. The Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus sang with pizazz even though Avery Fisher Hall’s acoustic rendered the text inaudible, and our four soloists (Julianna Di Giacomo, Kelley O’Connor, Russell Thomas, and Shenyang) all acquitted themselves admirably. By the time they came into the picture, though, Gilbert’s only option was a mad dash for the finishing line.

Good programming, then, but troubling execution when it mattered most.