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Pity the poor guest conductor. He flies into town, hoping to make an impression during a one- week stand. Chances are the Philharmonic, which can be cruel to visitors, hardly recognises him. He knows what he wants, but isn’t sure he can be maximally persuasive with minimal rehearsal time. The subscribers bring a who-is- this-guy? attitude – or a wait-and-hear stance.
So it was on Friday when Jonathan Nott took the podium. It is true that the maestro from Solihull had survived a difficult debut under similar conditions in January. And he has enjoyed remarkable success with his own big band in Bavaria, the Bamberger Symphoniker. But New York isn’t Bamberg and, for better for worse, Lorin Maazel’s ensemble isn’t likely to change its murky colours overnight.
Still, wonders never cease, especially in the weary world of music. Remarkably calm and authoritative, Nott came, saw, and nearly conquered. He coaxed alert responses from the Philharmonic and, despite cautious modernism, pleased the matinee ladies.
For an opening exercise he chose Beethoven’s magnificently quirky König Stephan overture and led it with crisp bravado. Next he turned to the slow-motion pathos of Ligeti’s Lontano, enforcing equal parts of clarity and tension.
The centrepiece entailed the keyboard cataclysms of Bartók’s Concerto No 1. Nott provided a propulsive yet astonishingly tidy framework for Peter Serkin, who conquered the jagged solos with energy and accuracy. His reading may have evinced a sentimental impulse, for the soloist at the Philharmonic premiere in 1960 was his father, Rudolf Serkin. The Philharmonic untied Bartok’s awesome knots as if they posed an everyday challenge, even though the work had been ignored here since 1982.
For a hum-along valedictory, Nott whisked through Beethoven’s Fifth. His callous speeds invoked incoherence, but the audience savoured the excitement.
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