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19.5.12

Rare, Rarer, and Brahms

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Brahms, Piano Concertos, N. Freire, Leipzig Gewandhausorchester,
R. Chailly


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K. Weill, Symphony No. 2, Berlin Philharmonic, M. Jansons
My beautiful plan to hear Charles Dutoit's swan song in Philadelphia on Thursday night having been ruined by nightmare traffic, I desperately needed some consolation from the National Symphony Orchestra program I pushed back hearing until last night. Having missed the rare chance to hear Maria João Pires in the deal (replacing the originally scheduled Maurizio Pollini -- that concert repeats in Philadelphia this evening, if you can make it), I felt more than comforted by the prospect of Nelson Freire's belated debut with the NSO, especially after he had to cancel his performance, also of Brahms, with the orchestra in 2009. This time, it was not the first piano concerto but the second one (op. 83, B♭ major).

It is a gargantuan work in many ways, standing on its own in the second half as the meatiest piece on the program, a struggle of symphonic proportions between soloist and orchestra (last heard from the NSO in 2007, with Emanuel Ax under Leonard Slatkin). After an idyllic opening duet with the horn, played well except for one slip later in the first movement, Freire played with a heroic, broad-handed thunder, more than matching the NSO phrase for phrase with a handsome, orchestral touch at the keyboard. The softer, lyrical side came out in the returns of that poetic horn dialogue material, as well as in the smoldering third movement, burning with ardency as he matched the glowing love song of the cello solo, pointing that theme with delicately placed, longing appoggiaturas, growing more turbulent but then settling, as the best-played Brahms often does, into an air of sad resignation, as the movement subsided in the low strings. The second movement was moody, with an intense but fluid handling of rubato as tempi shifted, and the finale had plenty of verve and sparkle, with a good-natured folksy quality to the second theme. In fast passages, Freire sometimes seemed just a notch impatient, jumping on entrances as if the pacing was not quite up to his liking, but although visually he is not an effusive player (a pleasant change from some other pianists), this was a deeply felt collaboration among soloist, musicians, and conductor.

Doing the honors at the podium was guest conductor Andreas Delfs, last heard replacing Heinz Fricke in Washington National Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos. While the Brahms was perhaps not his forte, Delfs worked marvels with a chamber orchestra selection of players in a most welcome Haydn symphony (no. 83, G minor) that (pace Jens) opened the concert. We love to hear the Haydn symphonies whenever we can, but it is a disappointment to hear the same ten or so over and over again. So it was a pleasure to hear "La Poule," one of the so-called Paris symphonies, from the NSO for the first time since 1997. With a small complement of strings (6-6-4-4-2) played mostly senza vibrato, Delfs was able to craft a charming performance that emphasized true realization of p and pp, with the strings able to disappear al niente, as they did to witty effect on the second theme of the Andante, an accompanying figure in second violin and violas in search of a tune. The clucking violin motif in the first movement, which later earned the work its hennish nickname, was charming, matched by the repeated-note chirping motif in the flute. Delfs showed a nice hand with Haydn, keeping the tempo moving but not mechanical, perhaps a little too fast for Allegretto in the Menuetto, but slowing down to the right tempo for the trio. Assistant Principal flutist Aaron Goldman stood to play the sweet solo in the trio from memory and played with equal polish in the bright finale.


Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Music review: Andreas Delfs, Nelson Freire and the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, May 18)
Rounding out the program was Kurt Weill's slender but pleasing second symphony, not heard from the NSO since its debut with the orchestra, under Julius Rudel back in 1972. Weill was at least as successful as George Gershwin at incorporating jazz idioms into classical forms, and this symphony is an excellent example, with a sultry trumpet solo and a laid-back clarinet lick (over Latin-rhythm strings) in the first movement, for example, in a mixture of popular and grotesque that smacks, at its best, of Shostakovich. The second movement is a sort of World War-era funeral march, complete with a bluesy trombone solo, Beethoven mixed with Benny Goodman, completed along with the rest of the symphony after the composer made a hasty escape from Germany to Paris in 1933. Unfortunately, the second movement overstays its welcome and the third is a prosaic, uninspired exercise in scales, taken here at a tempo that just did not hang together well.

This concert repeats this evening (May 19, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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