If the New York Philharmonic's Wednesday night concert at Wolf Trap was memorable for its muscle, last night's offering by the Philharmonic was equally notable for its finesse -- thanks in part to a program laden with instrumental contrasts.
While it may not be fair to begrudge three of the orchestra's talented musicians their moment of glory, the inclusion on the program of Vivaldi's rather arid Concerto for Three Violins in F, No. 34, seemed at aesthetic odds with the exhilaration of hearing the Philharmonic bedazzle in two far more opulent scores by Brahms and Bartok. Admittedly, that's a gripe having more to do with the fact that two performances at Wolf Trap in a season will never be enough to savor this orchestra's delights.
But while Kerry McDermott, Fiona Simon and Yoko Takebe performed credibly enough in the Vivaldi, their rendition was hardly stellar. Lines in the opening Allegro were more wooden than inspired; unisons were workmanlike, but lacked luster; imitative figures were thrown away rather than used, as they should be, to build dynamic momentum. McDermott and Simon warmed to their subject in the Andante (though Takebe's accompanying line never was heard clearly), and happily all three shared moments of lyric grace in the closing movement -- albeit a little late.
What a contrast then to hear the Philharmonic in full flight during Bartok's Suite from "The Miraculous Mandarin." Fireworks erupted from the start with swirling violin figures, crashing brass entries and quieter though no less poignant solo passages for viola and clarinet. Director Zubin Mehta's unerring attention to detail unleashed a polished orchestra upon an equally polished composition, and the results were enormously gratifying.
Mehta's insights into Brahms's Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68, and the orchestra's ability to deliver were alone worth the price of admission: It was as finely wrought a performance as any likely to come our way. The whole was imbued with a sad, heroic quality. In lesser hands, the music might have teetered toward the maudlin, but here the phrasing was golden, the touch sublime.