The National Symphony Orchestra is back from what was, by all accounts, a successful tour of Europe and Oman. For their first concerts here this month, the musicians welcomed back conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, for his first guest appearance since 2006. The German conductor, celebrated especially for his years leading the Cleveland Orchestra, is now in his 80s, but he seemed energetic and in control at the podium (at the end of an active month of guest conducting), in a fine program that paired the modern and the Romantic, heard on Friday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Although the NSO recently played an orchestration of Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder by Hans Werner Henze, it had apparently not played a single piece of the celebrated German composer's music until von Dohnányi led this performance of the Adagio, Fugue, and Maenads' Dance, a distillation of music from his opera The Bassarids. In this mythological work, the ruler of Thebes, Pentheus, tries to ban the cult of Dionysus from his city, only to be tricked by the god into disguising himself as a woman, taking part in the frenzied celebrations in honor of the god, and ultimately being torn to pieces by the crazed Maenads, among whom are his own mother and sister. The music is quite beautiful, with Romantic turns of melody and opulent orchestration (especially some memorable bits for alto saxophone and enough percussion to stun a small cat -- at full bore, the piece makes a lovely racket), with the climaxes shaped carefully by von Dohnányi, the musicians following him closely. The orchestral version concludes with the Maenads' Dance, a wild rumpus of sound that begins with a sudden outburst and ends with the death of Pentheus, personified in an ardent cello solo.
Anne Midgette, NSO program of Henze and Brahms is a feast for the ears from the Fatherland (Washington Post, February 22)
Zachary Lewis, Christoph von Dohnanyi revisits Henze and Mahler with Cleveland Orchestra (Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 22)
Jeremy Eichler, With a sage guide, a tour of a cathedral in sound (Boston Globe, February 15)
David Wright, Dohnányi, Lupu and BSO contrast modest Mozart with bold Bruckner (Boston Classical Review, February 15)
David Weininger, Dohnanyi back with a well-crafted program at BSO (Boston Globe, February 8)
Anthony Tommasini, Prometheus, Raw and Fiery (New York Times, February 1)
The last time von Dohnányi was here, in 2006, he conducted the first Brahms symphony. Justly renowned for his Brahms -- in recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra (classic) and also the Philharmonia Orchestra (good) -- von Dohnányi led a magisterial performance of the fourth symphony (E minor, op. 98), opening the first movement with a tempo not too slow, allowing the halting melody to sigh over a surging accompaniment, making the whole piece smolder rather than blaze. Thanks to von Dohnányi's containment of sound and control of tempo, this was an expression of somber, even stifled passion, just the way I like my Brahms, with a subtle, heart-meltingly sweet second movement (fine sounds from the horns) and energized but not overly fast third movement, with seamless transitions. The confidence heard from the NSO, a few clunkers in the oboes and horns in the Brahms aside, seemed to flow from the assured hand at the helm, creating a forceful and noble finale, based on the chaconne with which Bach concluded his Cantata 150. Here the piece had a tidal pull, abating slightly for the gentle flute solo and somber low brass moments but flowing implacably to its end.
This concert repeats this evening (February 23, 8 pm) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.