After the musicians of the New York Philharmonic finished Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto on Thursday night, they did something they don’t usually do: They applauded the soloist.
With a violinist on the order of Leonidas Kavakos, that reaction felt justified. He is a wonder. The music flowed out of him like a river — big, glistening and unobstructed, but also tasteful in its frictionless subtleties.
Shostakovich, under the watch of Soviet authorities and brought to heel at Stalin’s pleasure, completed the concerto in 1948 but, presumably fearing retribution for failing to glorify the nation and its people, shelved it until after Stalin’s death in 1953. The work is constructed as a suite of movements. It opens with a character piece, a murkily colored Nocturne that lives in the Upside Down of Chopin’s genre-defining works for piano, and reaches a climax in a Baroque-derived Passacaglia, at once august and austere, that leads into a fiendish five-minute cadenza for the soloist.
Playing from memory, Kavakos cleared one hazard after another in Shostakovich’s stupendously original score. He didn’t just spin legato lines in the searching, conversational Nocturne; he expounded entire legato paragraphs in an eloquent, unbroken stream of consciousness. Shredding his way through the Scherzo, his tone was poised, even lavish. Where some violinists convey a sense of anguish in demanding passages — playing two melodies in duet or an endless seesaw of double stops — he sounded effortless. Even his harmonics had a juicy ping.
The orchestra, led by Gianandrea Noseda, faded into the background. The players failed to envelop Kavakos in the Nocturne’s glimmering, unsettling darkness. The Scherzo had no abandon, and the Burlesque’s funhouse-mirror distortions of the concerto’s once-noble themes had no derision. Noseda fitfully ratcheted up the intensity of the Passacaglia with its implacable 17-bar pattern. As energy slacked, shy deference reigned.
Without interplay from the orchestra, Kavakos found tension in his own playing. In the cadenza, he could have been a caged animal reacquainting itself with its own majesty. His encore, taken from Bach’s Partita No. 1, was spellbinding.
It was hard to imagine how anything could follow Kavakos’s performance, and perhaps someone at the Philharmonic felt the same way. After he left the stage, an announcement was made that the next piece, George Walker’s Sinfonia No. 1, would be pushed to after intermission.
During the break, I wondered if the clean, bright acoustics of the Philharmonic’s new hall were partly to blame for the orchestra’s showing in the Shostakovich. Each instrumental section sounded crisp, soloistic and unblended.
The Walker, an imaginative exercise in disparate timbres, dispelled those suspicions. The orchestra, from the pointed brasses to the curling woodwinds, found its way to unanimity of utterance.
The final piece, Respighi’s “Roman Festivals,” gave the Philharmonic an opportunity to demonstrate how far it has come in calibrating its sound to the enhanced acoustics of its new auditorium. A composer of sunny bombast, Respighi provided the stirring finale for the ensemble’s first subscription program of the season in October with “Pines of Rome,” the second piece in his Roman trilogy. At the time, colors practically bounced off the walls in the lively acoustic; climaxes, perhaps overshot, took on a fuzzy quality.
On Thursday, the orchestra showed off the clarity of fortissimo passages, layering percussion, brass and strings in handsome tiers. Corrosive brasses and heated strings enlivened the Respighi’s first movement, and gray-toned woodwinds, transparent violins, and luxuriant cellos and basses colored the second.
In something of a redo of Shostakovich’s Burlesque, “Roman Festivals” closes with a portrait of the antic, circuslike crowds of Piazza Navona in Rome. The Philharmonic’s players came alive in the coordinated chaos. It was the sound of revelers falling into a shared rhythm — and of an orchestra relearning how to play with itself.
New York Philharmonic
This program repeats through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.