A Comeback Continues, a Career Ascends

Maxim Vengerov/New York Philharmonic/Long Yu
Avery Fisher Hall, January 22, 2015

This week, Chinese conductor Long Yu is leading the New York Philharmonic in subscription concerts for the first time (his previous appearances at the orchestra's helm were non-subscription Lunar New Year celebrations). Meanwhile, Maxim Vengerov, once the most spectacular violinist on the scene, continues his comeback from an injury. Thursday night their paths intersected at Avery Fisher Hall in a Russian program that indicated each is on the right path.

Reports of earlier concerts in Vengerov's comeback were somewhat disheartening. Rumor has it that he's been focusing on the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which opened the concert, because it's relatively easy for him. In a way, this is hilarious; this work, written in 1878, was intended for Hungarian virtuoso Leopold Auer, but Auer turned down the opportunity to premiere it, calling it "unplayable." But compared to the slashing Prokofiev concertos on which Vengerov built his reputation, the Tchaikovsky, though certainly testing any violinist's stamina, is no longer considered such fearsome repertoire. Vengerov immediately showed that his tone is rich and vibrant again. Compared to his old Teldec recording of this concerto, his performance this evening was more soulfully Romantic, with more portamento. In the first movement's cadenza, he played a tad cautiously, especially when approaching the highest notes, but nailed all but two of them.

My only other complaints were about the orchestra, in particular its volume, which was shockingly loud at times (my wife actually put her fingers in her ears during the passage after the soloist's first long entrance) and quite out of proportion. One of the trumpets was also "offsides" for a moment. However, kudos to the lead clarinet and flute after the soloist's first passage in the second movement. Long Yu seemed content to follow Vengerov's lead and did relatively little overt shaping of the piece until the trio-ish section of the third movement, when he highly contrasted the tempi; in this section, the orchestra played with great delicacy until the French horns' entrance. The conductor shaped the winds' section sweetly but with a telling hint of melancholy. The difficult drive to the finish found the orchestra and soloist in perfect coordination, and if the French horns were a bit blowzy, well, that's what horns (especially the Philharmonic's) do.

After the audience's ecstatic reception, Vengerov played as an encore a Bach movement (if memory serves, the Allemande from the Partita No. 2) of such grace and charm that I immediately conceived a great desire for him to record a set of the Sonatas and Partitas.

The second half of the concert consisted of Shostakovich's controversial Fifth Symphony (but then, nearly every Shostakovich symphony is controversial from some perspective). Long Yu lingered over the first movement, at 17:24 the second-longest I've encountered (Bernstein's second recording is the longest at 17:38; most are in the 15-16:00 range). The strings at the opening were deeply emotive, tender in a bittersweet way rather than emphatic. The French horns were startlingly loud at their entrance; the trombones were more reasonable, and also excellent in tone and phrasing. The principal flute, here and throughout this work, was particularly impressive. I also had my first chance to hear the interim concertmaster, Sheryl Staples, in the several violin solos here and in subsequent movements, and was quite impressed. I found the conductor's tempo proportions apt and convincing. The high volume issue reared its ugly head again, though I am willing to admit that in this particular piece (unlike the Tchaikovsky) such extremes can be interpretively justified; however, Avery Fisher Hall sure doesn't take the edge off or in any way mellow the impact.

The second movement was taken with some alacrity (5:07), though one would hardly call it rushed; the contrast with the movements around it was effective, and the precisely articulated detail further impressed. All the wind solos were very loud here; again, justifiable, but disconcerting. (There was one brass "clunker" during a fortissimo passage; one of the hazards of extreme volume is the strain it puts on the brass.) Long Yu took a huge ritardando for the quiet passage right before the end.

Long Yu's treatment of the Largo was masterful. He took it at a slower tempo than used to be the norm, but which aligns with recent Russian conductors' speeds (14:42) (nothing like the 15:58 of Lenny's second version). Of course, it's more than just a matter of speed; it's about character, and the effect here was of stunned grief, almost a stupor -- in an artistic way, I hasten to add, not a bad way; tension of line was always maintained. It built well, then diminished to the first real pianissimo of the work from the violins, though the wind soloists didn't follow suit.

At the center of the controversy surrounding the Fifth is the question of the composer's intention in the finale: should it be triumphant, the "joyous, optimistic note" of his official comments in advance of the premiere, or should it be the grim, forced rejoicing he supposedly spoke of in Testimony, which may or may not be his memoirs but which brought about a vast revision of thought about the intent of many of his symphonies. Long Yu's interpretation of the finale comes down firmly on the side of the revisionists; there was no hint of sincere joy here, no unwritten accelerando in the coda. Other things I noted, aside from the interpretation: I've been critical of the horns, but the principal made it through his solo in this movement without a hitch; the trombones continued to be magnificent; despite the high volumes, unlike (to cite the most obvious example) Bernstein's recordings, the percussion here under Long Yu never overstepped their bounds, which meant that the impact of the drums' entrance three minutes from the close had not been undercut by their previous entrances. At the beginning of the movement, I had wondered how, at the established volume, Long Yu could achieve a greater climax, but it became clear that he wanted it to be anti-climactic, and the darkly rote conclusion was entirely convincing. This Shostakovich Fifth established Long Yu in my mind as a conductor whose progress I shall keep close watch on. Unlike some others I could name, he abjured flash in service to the composer's intent. (No slight intended on Bernstein, whose takes on the Fifth came before the impact of Testimony.)

One final note to the man who shouted "bravo" while the final chord of the Shostakovich was still being held -- hell, had barely begun. This is not a competition, and you did not win. Perhaps you thought you were online trying to be the first commenter in a thread, or at La Scala trying to pump up some diva's ego after her aria. However, instead you were listening to, or at least present during, a work of anguish and psychic torment that should inspire, if anything, a sobering moment of reflection. The person whose hearing aid whined distractingly throughout the Tchaikovsky had an excuse; you, on the other hand, are inexcusable. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.