NEW YORK — The New York Philharmonic has entered its third season under the baton of music director Alan Gilbert. His good friend, German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who has collaborated with the orchestra over the past 15 years, is this season’s artist-in-residence. Last week, the pair teamed up to perform Bach’s famous Concerto for Two Violins in D minor at Avery Fisher Hall, an occasion that kicked off Zimmermann’s residency and also marked Gilbert’s Philharmonic debut as a soloist.
The Double Violin Concerto, as it is commonly known, is a breathtaking example of counterpoint, with the two violins, equal soloists, continually talking to and mirroring one another, offering ideas, questions, and answers. You don’t want to miss a word of their conversations, both optimistic and resigned. Taking the second violin part, Gilbert, who has previously played in the Philharmonic’s chamber music concerts, proved himself to be as much an accomplished instrumentalist as a conductor, though he quipped, in a video interview published on the Philharmonic’s Website, “I certainly don’t intend to try to take the city by storm as a violinist.”
Gilbert led the ensemble of Philharmonic string players, who stood around the harpsichordist, in a fast-paced Vivace, where the soloists’ contrasting approaches were established. Zimmermann, who will this season perform the Beethoven and Dvorák concertos, has a light and precise touch, while Gilbert has a deeper and mellower tone. Their different styles, Zimmerman’s more contained and Gilbert’s more open, complemented each other nicely. The Largo was wonderfully fluid and relaxed — lines melded easily to produce a very meditative effect — and the ensemble was full of life and perfectly in sync in the blustery final movement. Bach had a way of weaving musical tapestries that make time almost stand still, and this very focused performance seemed to go by in the blink of an eyelid.
Next on the program was a completely different kind of violin concerto, which may not have been music to the ears of those who had come for the familiar melodies of Bach. Viennese composer Alban Berg, who was a champion of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, began work on the concerto in the spring of 1935 upon hearing that Manon Gropius — the daughter of Alma Mahler and her second husband, Walter Gropius — had died of polio at the age of 18. Berg finished the composition in a matter of months, but shortly after, at the age of 50, he died from blood poisoning as a result of an insect bite. His memorial to the girl (he inscribed “To the Memory of an Angel” on the manuscript) premiered four months after his death.
Fortunately for those in the audience who weren’t fans of serial music, the concerto contains some elements of tonality — Berg quotes a passage from a Bach cantata and a folk song — and touches of romanticism. The work appears to reflect the various stages of grief, and Zimmermann skillfully took us through the emotional trajectory: denial in the spare opening passages, anger and bargaining in the explosive middle section, and finally acceptance and peace in the solo violin’s fading final line. Zimmermann worked hard in the technically demanding Allegro, his hair flicking about as he tackled the schizophrenic arpeggios, and he was in the zone in the chaotic cadenzas as he double-stopped, plucked, and ran up and down the fingerboard. In slower passages, he produced a rich, yearning sound. The orchestra, under the baton of Gilbert, also delivered some fine moments, particularly the clarinet section in the still passage evoking church organ music.
To round out its version of “The Three Bs” (Berg, of course, taking the place of Beethoven), the Philharmonic closed the program with Brahms’s Third Symphony, which, like the two violin concertos, has a sad quality to it. Fluctuating between F major and F minor, it’s the shortest of Brahms’s symphonies, and its themes are both introspective and defiant. There was free, shimmery playing from the strings and well-articulated bursts from the brass in the opening movement, and Gilbert darted about on the podium, willing more from each section. The Andante lacked some dynamic contrast and subtlety, but the Poco Allegretto, with its beautiful bittersweet theme that swells and contracts, was just right, and the horn and oboe principals delivered controlled solos that rang throughout the hall. The final movement was swift and full of energy, and the orchestra was positively singing and dancing.