Thanks to a friend's invitation, I threw caution and editing to the winds and spent Thursday night with the New York Philharmonic. It was an evening of excellent performances: I confess to being intellectually and emotionally tired by the conclusion, as well as exalted. I'm not sure that makes sense in print; the best way I can find to explain it is that the commitment of the artists created a need for listening which was committed not only to receiving but to reaching out, to conscientiously gathering in every last detail that I could possibly soak up, while feeling that a great deal was flowing past before I could quite understand what made it extraordinary. This was enriching, and rewarding... and tiring! (I feel that I should also offer thanks to Mark Berry, who writes erudite and entertaining prose over at Boulezian, and whose encouragement gave an extra spur to the decision that in the grand scheme of things, an extra evening away from books and laptop could and should be spared.)
Elgar's Introduction and Allegro sounded burnished and rich, with the structure so cleanly delineated that I could grasp the substance behind the sheer sweep of it. All of the artists in the quartet gave fine performances, and the rich harmonies unfolded with an elegant precision that created a luxurious whole. The rendition of Mozart's 36th Symphony (Linz) was the kind of thing that would entirely spoil me for lesser Mozart conducting if I had the musical memory of my Respected Father. Phrasing and dynamics were subtly shaded, giving significance to even the most delicate alterations in each. The humor and delight in the piece were reveled in without hinting at triviality, and watching Sir Colin enjoy the music was a joy in itself.
The Elgar violin concerto, given last, astonished me. The first movement alone was an intense journey... and then it kept going! Znaider and Davis have recorded the work. (If you go here and scroll down, you will find a brief video of soloist Nikolaj Znaider discussing the piece. An interview Znaider gave to Jessica Duchen in connection with the London performances has more details.) Nikolaj Znaider was an incredible presence on stage; obviously it's a subjective judgment, but he struck me as having an unusual force of charisma. His manner, however, could not have been further from what I might call "showmanship"; his posture was erect, movements controlled, expressions serious to the point of being grave. His playing struck me as intensely focused, with nothing excessive. This is not to say that it was cold; quite the reverse, for me, as what the composer described as the piece's "awfully emotional" nature was reinforced by the unsentimental approach to it. Sir Colin Davis was equally committed; the overall effect was one of uncompromising beauty, beauty that demands something. The only conclusion is that of Rilke's "Archaïscher Torso Apollos:" Du mußt dein Leben ändern.