Michael McManus has rarely heard the NYPO play better - or more differently
When I sat with David Zinman in Zurich last September, chatting in the warm autumn sun and swatting away unseasonal wasps, what animated him most was the prospect of his forthcoming series of concerts with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under the banner 'The Modern Beethoven'. The NYPO’s music director Alan Gilbert, he told me, wants to ‘put another way of thinking into that orchestra’, by inviting guest artists with ‘not the usual view of the classics’. It is an approach Zinman himself has pioneered at the Tonhalle in Zurich, encouraging far greater flexibility of outlook and playing style amongst the players. The new generation, he believes, are naturally receptive to this radical approach, because ‘they haven’t grown up with Furtwängler – they’ve grown up with John Eliot Gardiner’.
His plans for New York involved three programmes, each pairing two Beethoven symphonies (Nos 2&7, 4&8 and 1&3) with a Twentieth Century concerto (Stravinsky, Barber, Hartmann). As can readily be heard on his superb set of the Beethoven symphonies with the Tonhalle, Zinman likes to use natural brass where possible for these works and also believes in doing the best he can to match the composer’s metronome markings, which requires a special approach to bowing, which has to be designed for what he terms ‘super-articulation’. The idea, he told me, is to create as much transparency as possible in the overall string sound – in short, ‘you need to hear what is going on’. To create the sense of animation and energy that has become his hallmark in the classics without resorting to superficial fireworks, Zinman uses a technique that I once also heard Günter Wand advocate, generally taking the works at a faster pace than the norm (as marked in the score) but doing so by establishing a basic pulse which is actually rather slow, beating bars or minims rather than crotchets or quavers: ‘It opens up another way of playing ... The orchestra feels an inner animation from these speeds’.
His main concerns were about the notoriously dry sound of the Avery Fisher Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center, which he described to me as ‘bass dead’, in stark contrast with the acoustically near-perfect Tonhalle. He clearly relished the challenge: ‘It’ll be fun, to see how much I can change things – and how much I can’t change things’.
Five months later, the winter has been and gone, and David Zinman and I are reunited in New York. The public rehearsal of the first programme, on a bright and chilly March morning in Manhattan, is packed out. ‘Beethoven is our favourite’, asserts my neighbour, a formidable New York doyenne of a certain age. Her tone suggests she will brook no disagreement. As is his habit, Zinman splits the second violins from the first, a brave gambit in this tricky acoustic, but a masterstroke in terms of presenting Beethoven’s masterly counterpoint to any audience (he later tells me ‘you have to have a lot of guts’ to do this, because there can be no guarantee the firsts and seconds will be able to hear each other). The dialogue between the two sets of violinists brings an involuntary smile to my face more than once, especially in the Seventh Symphony, where Zinman segues straight from a brisk opening movement into an Allegretto which lives up to its title.
The concert programme predicted the Seventh symphony would come in at a minute shorter than the Symphony No 2 which preceded it. Zinman doesn’t quite manage that, but this is certainly the fastest performance of the Seventh I have ever heard on modern instruments. There is no doubting the technical brilliance of the orchestra and they certainly have a sound radically different from that that of two weeks earlier, when I heard them play Mahler and Bernstein in London. The retraining has evidently been in earnest, yet to my ears they aren’t quite 'there' yet. They haven’t completely played themselves into the 'post-modern' style that David Zinman requires of them.
At the close of the rehearsal Zinman himself, as ebullient and delightful as ever, suggests to me in the most diplomatic terms possible, that my ears have not deceived me. ‘It’s going to take a little time’ to achieve what he aspires to create, he says, though the players ‘are really very flexible and very willing...and they are having fun too I think...(but) their style of playing is a little bit different and they have get used to another style’. He has not taken the decision lightly, to begin this mini-Odyssey with the least played of Beethoven’s symphonic canon. He regards the Second Symphony as a ‘very, very hard piece’, but one that can be made to work so long as its true nature is understood and realised, in particular in the Scherzo, which he says should be ‘full of contrasts and jokes’.
The following afternoon I attend the second of the four concerts he is to give of this particular programme. Something intangible has clicked into place. As they had at rehearsal, the NYPO and the wonderful Peter Serkin again shine in Stravinsky’s elusive Capriccio – all easy wit and technical brilliance as one might expect and totally within the Philharmonic’s 'comfort zone' – but the Beethoven is now genuinely revelatory. The Zinman style has bedded down and his idiosyncratic synthesis of historical analysis and modern techniques has worked its magic. No one else conducts Beethoven quite like this and, as the audience rises to its feet cheering at the conclusion of the Symphony No 7, I reflect that I have rarely heard the NYPO play better – and I am sure I have never heard them sound less like the NYPO. They have indeed found another voice. This is exciting, freshly minted playing, without any hint of technique for its own sake. Once again, the perpetually youthful David Zinman has demonstrated how energy begets energy.
As they might say in New York, Bronx-born David Zinman is a true home-town hero.