Of Earth, Sea, and Sky

Concert by the New York Philharmonic on 17th November 2022, with Hannu Lintu (conductor), Sergei Babayan and Daniil Trifanov (pianists) as guests, performing works by Stravinsky, Bartók, Saariaho and Sibelius

Who comes up with these titles? And why? This one is of the first concert I’ve chosen by the New York Philharmonic for the 2022-2023 season. I chose it for the Bartók and loved it for the Sibelius, but I am not nearly poetic enough to sense where earth, sea and sky come into it.

That the Bartók was on the programme meant that there never was any real chance that I would not have chosen this concert. Perhaps if they had filled the rest of the programme with Mozart or similar, I might have put it aside with regret. But this particular Bartók is an adaptation of a lesser piece that I much admire from the one recording I have of it, sort of, and although Bartók is often on programmes here in New York—he lived here for his last few years—I could not sensibly expect that I would ever see this particular piece in live performance if I passed on it now. Anyway, the programme was entirely of 20th-century music.

There had been a programme change. I don’t recall that this has ever happened to me, yet I’ve already been notified of this and another for the season. The logistics are surely complicated not just for being the first post-pandemic season back at Lincoln Center but the first since the extensive renovation of the concert hall (now named David Geffen Hall, though I still keep thinking of it as Avery Fisher Hall). It’s also the first season for which I’ve bought my tickets online—but that this has got me slightly less good seating than I have been used to is another story.

Instead of the originally programmed Oceanides by Sibelius, the orchestra opened with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments . This was composed in 1920 but this performance was of its (substantial) revision from 1947. I never have cared much for Stravinsky, though this might better be understood relatively, given that I have pretty much the complete bundle of his recordings as conductor. On that set this piece is unfortunately in mono from 1951 but I’ve listened to it more often than some others since it happens to follow the Ebony Concerto which is a piece I often reach for when I have only ten minutes to fill (and this recording has the attraction of having Benny Goodman as soloist). To hear the Symphonies of Wind Instruments in live performance brought new interest. I may just be imagining this but it seemed to me that the hall’s acoustics—which I am surely not alone in thinking used to be less than helpful—have improved such that I could easily pick out the instruments and admire the skill with which Stravinsky develops his changing colours.

The Bartók that I came for has long been known to me as the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. It was composed in 1937 but transcribed in 1940 as the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, apparently at the urging of the publisher who not unreasonably thought it might increase the likelihood of performance. In neither form does it get anything like the attention it deserves. Bartók was himself a pianist of no small distinction and as attested by his piano concertos he wrote with a strong sense of the piano as a percussion instrument. That he wrote superbly for percussion is well attested by the much loved (and much more frequently performed) Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta from 1936. I know of the Sonata only from a CD that I listen to at least a few times each year, and now I have heard the Concerto only once but live. Each has its merits, of course, but I found that although the orchestra added tone and colour, it too often distracted from and even obscured the pinpoint clarity of the percussion and pianos. I might have preferred these performers doing the Sonata but I’ve surely heard the Concerto at its best. From pianists of the calibre of Daniil Trifanov and Sergei Babayan, you get the luxury that clarity and precision are never in doubt. The three principal percussionists—the orchestra’s own—were similarly expert. The intricate synchronisation with two pianos was a treat to hear.

The two pieces performed after the intermission were both from Finland. The first, by Kaija Saariaho and only 10 minutes long, was extracted in 2003 from a larger orchestral work composed in 2002. As these things go, this is very new music. It’s programmed to the Greek mythology of Orion, the extracted middle portion being named Ciel d’hiver, apparently being concerned with Orion’s appearance as a constellation in the winter wky. No matter. The music was interesting in and of itself as a tone poem but less for whatever might be the poem than for the tone. This composer explores the ranges and blending of instruments, and if I add the shaping of colour then perhaps I am more influenced by the poetic than I like to think. I want to hear this again, in part because I don’t know what I might make of it long-term.

A growing sense that the evening’s experience of carefully graded transitions in sound had much to do with the conductor—Hannu Lintu, from Finland, surely not coincidentally—was confirmed beyond doubt by the performance of Symphony No. 7 by Sibelius. I’d be surprised if this is anyone’s favourite symphony by Sibelius. I’ve always found it a pleasant coda to the other six, a joy to listen to but without demanding and sustaining my interest as do the fourth, fifth and sixth. I’d have said I know the seventh moderately well but now I realise I don’t know it nearly well enough. No, that’s not quite correct: I’ve always known but now I realise I must do something about it. The problem for me with this relatively short symphony—it’s barely 20 minutes—is that it presents all its material up front. The fault is instead with me for not paying attention.

Within the first minute of what Lintu brought out of this orchestra for this symphony I knew I was listening to the sort of performance I would long remember both for the immediate listening and for its prompting of some rethinking. At least for his chosen music, Lintu is a man who knows what he wants and how to get it. The orchestra looked and sounded invested, rather than merely professional. They were having fun and it showed in a way that I had thought it had not, for instance, when Alan Gilbert had them play the six Nielsen symphonies a few years back. This performance was more like the Minnesota’s of Nielsen’s third symphony under Osmo Vämskä at Carnegie Hall way back in 2011, which I tend to regard as the best performance I’ve ever heard of any one piece. Last night, Sibelius’s seventh breathed, in and out, on scales both long and short, fluid and natural, emotional and witty. It’s not as if I have a shortage of good recordings by top orchestras to listen to on my new mission to familiarise myself with this symphony, but none will equal what I’ve just heard from the New York Philharmonic under Lintu.