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New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Gilbert, Barbican, review
Ivan Hewett | The Telegraph | 20 February 2012

After three nights of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, it's time to go on the wagon. My ears are saturated, and the emotional stimulus has been intoxicating, like walking down Fifth Avenue on a sunny morning.

Naturally the orchestra brought programmes that displayed its special qualities to maximum advantage. After a superbly honed but somewhat anonymous performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, style and sound came perfectly together for the following two evening concerts. The most magical moment was the opening of Ravel's 2nd Daphnis et Chloé Suite. I doubt whether I've ever heard those undulating flute-and-clarinet figures etched on to the hazy string background with such calligraphic precision.

What made this performance winning as well as entrancing was the rhythmic flexibility emanating from Alan Gilbert on the podium. Gilbert is keenly aware that such a perfectly drilled orchestra may just sit back in its collective seat and let "mastery" carry it along – especially at the end of a tiring tour. No way was he going to let that happen.

The pin-point accuracy of the orchestra's sound was ideal for Thomas Adès's Polaris, given its UK premiere on Friday. I was bracing myself for its innocent musical-box beginning to build into an alarming and almost mad complexity, which is what usually happens in Adès's music. In fact, the music never lost its air of wide?eyed wonder, even at the biggest moments.

You might say this was fitting for a piece that mused on stars, and the way they guide sailors to their destination. But what about the human aspect of this image? Stars get obscured, sailors become lost, ships go down. The music stayed aloof from all that, floating in beautiful abstraction, and ending in a too-easy affirmation. Magnus Lindberg's Feria, played the following evening, was less of a perfect musical time-piece, but much more engaging emotionally.

All this might suggest everything was high-octane and high gloss.

Far from it. Mark Nuccio's solo clarinet in the finale of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony was a marvel of far-away delicacy.

Lang Lang's performance of Bartók's 2nd Piano Concerto had a delightful, unexpected neo-classical restraint and wit. Best of all, though, was Joyce DiDonato's performance of Berlioz's song-cycle Les nuits d'été. She was especially fine in the tragic songs, which she captured with superb dignified gravity, and the orchestra responded in kind.

(Five out of five stars)
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