Debutant Lintu conducts the Philharmonic Orchestra in the rare Bartók, flowing Sibelius

Hannu Lintu conducted the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday night. Photo: Veikko Kahkonen

As an unusually warm spell in mid-November came to an end in New York, a boreal chill settled over David Geffen Hall on Wednesday night. For his New York Philharmonic debut, Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu brought winter music from his compatriots Saariaho and Sibelius, as well as one of Stravinsky’s coolest works, Symphonies of wind instruments.

In the middle, like a campfire on a freezing night, Bartók’s Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra burned, in an incandescent interpretation by pianists Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan. The student-teacher duo were cleverly paired with three familiar figures usually seen at the back of the orchestra, not in front: Philharmonic percussionists Christopher S. Lamb, Daniel Druckman and Markus Rhoten.

A lean and rangy presence on the podium, Lintu visibly adapted to each composer’s style, giving clear instructions to execute Stravinsky’s objective vision, holding the fragile Saariaho winter sky in gentle hands, and sculpting Geffen’s newly sinuous space with swift gestures in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7.

He’s a rare conductor who can show a timbre, but Lintu – who is the conductor of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet – seemed to be doing just that by shaping the intriguing object that is Stravinsky’s work. Symphonies. Spicy or burnished, thick or lean, the Russian master cataloged the myriad ways in which woodwinds and brass instruments can “sound together” (the root meaning of the word “symphony”).

Many composers commissioned from this catalogue, including Copland for the widely spaced wind chords of his ballets and Stravinsky himself for the curly, voluble lines of the woodwinds in The Rite of Spring.

The composer criticized the first performance of the work in 1921 – conducted by Koussevitzky, no less – as being too “expressive”. No such problem on Wednesday evening, as Lintu and the skillful musicians of the Philharmonic Orchestra hung a starkly abstract piece of modern art on the undulating birch walls of Geffen.

Bartók’s concerto has a family history: it was originally a chamber piece that the composer was to play with himself and his wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, on pianos, and two percussionists. The expanded version with orchestra was introduced in London by another husband and wife team, Louis Kentner and Ilona Kabos. The piece remains a favorite of married or sibling piano duos.

The teacher-student relationship can be like a family, maybe even closer. Admittedly, warm feelings — if not always precise synchronization — were evident Wednesday between Trifonov and his former Cleveland Institute of Music teacher Babayan as they blazed over Bartók’s difficult score.

Although the three percussionists wielded a variety of instruments, one of them was most aware in the first movement of Rhoten’s timpani, Druckman’s coruscating xylophone and Lamb’s snare-drum artful nuances. In its subsidiary role, the orchestra provided a cushion of string sounds and brass reinforcements in the climaxes.

The Lento, ma non troppo found Bartók in a characteristic nocturnal mood, his winding tune punctuated by soft bird calls in the pianos, but even here unique sparkles from the xylophone pierced the darkness. The touches of humor that lifted the first movement retuned in force in the wayward finale, which surged between sudden stops and even found an appealing tune or two before ending, which is more unusual for a virtuoso concerto, with Lamb’s long snare diminuendo down to silence.

Babayan threw a paternal arm around his lanky and much taller student during their bows. Then the two returned to the pianos for an incredibly fast and funny encore, the closing movement of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448.

The myth of Orion the hunter, doomed to wander the winter night sky for his violent pursuit of women and animals, inspired the great work of Kaija Saariaho Orion for orchestra, whose middle movement now has a life of its own in concerts like winter sky (Winter sky).

As heard on Wednesday, the piece could have been the soundtrack to a night gazing at the cold, bright winter stars. A solitary piccolo floated on a soft burst of strings and high percussion, joined by wind “symphonies” far more delicate than those of Stravinsky. The sad repetition of a descending three-note motif suggested both the pain of exile and the celestial sphere revolving inexorably in the vastness of the night sky.

Brief crescendos cross the scene like sudden rays of light or passing comets. The conductor Lintu concluded the piece as delighted and still as at its beginning.

Sibelius envisioned the winter of his life in 1923, when he distilled his symphonic style into a single, fully composed work whose form was so unconventional that he hesitated to call it a symphony. But to assuage speculation about the work’s “program” he finally opted for the generic title, and “Sibelius’s Seventh” remained an eternity on concert programs.

While Virginia Woolf and James Joyce were writing their groundbreaking novels around the same time, the idea of ​​”stream of consciousness” was in the air when the Finnish composer wrote this continuous piece that splits into three, four or eleven sections, according to the analyst. you ask.

Lintu emphasized not divisions but flow, coaxing an orchestral “sunrise” out of pianissimo darkness, digging into sonic chords, asking and getting streams of golden copper tone. The music danced, argued and flirted by turns. A favorite texture was the brass on the strings – sounding lonely in a gentle breeze at first, but later pushed to the climax of the piece by the urgent energy of the strings.

Feeling each moment as part of a continuum, the Finnish maestro swept everything forward, pausing only briefly in the Saariaho-like celestial realms before swelling into a sudden crescendo until the end.

The program will be repeated Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 11 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. nyphil.org.

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