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Never Put Schumann after Shostakovich

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Shostakovich, Cello Sonata No. 1, S. Gabetta, Munich Philharmonic, L. Maazel

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Schumann, Violin Concerto / Cello Concerto (arr.), J. Storgårds (soloist), Tampere Philharmonic, L. Segerstam
The debut of John Storgårds, Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and new Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011 made his return to the group's podium this week an event we wanted to hear. True to form, the Finnish conductor brought a mostly exciting program and a driven, almost harried beat to the concert heard on Friday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, to which the NSO musicians responded with gusto. That some sections, particularly the violins, sounded as if they were knocked off their normal stride was a sign that the customary or the routine had no place in this performance, which often leads to compelling listening.

One of the hallmarks of the Christoph Eschenbach era at the NSO, the programming of great pieces for the first time in the orchestra's history, was again in evidence, with the belated debut of Benjamin Britten's Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (op. 10, from 1937). It is a daring and precocious piece, last heard from the chamber orchestra A Far Cry last year, with each variation a free-standing miniature in a new mimicked style -- with each one, the 20-something Britten seems to say, "Look what else I can do!" This performance, not the most polished perhaps, highlighted each of these styles with brashness (the March, the Moto Perpetuo, the forceful Funeral March) or luscious sound quality (the Adagio, the fine Romance) or delight in rhythm (the Bourrée classique, with its Paganini-ish solo by concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, and the Viennese waltz, filtered through several different types of nostalgia).

Cellist Sol Gabetta certainly had moxie to come to Washington with Shostakovich's first cello concerto (E-flat major, op. 107), a piece written for former NSO music director and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. (Heinrich Schiff was the last to do so, in 2007.) We had to miss Gabetta's NSO debut in 2008, which included the farewell concert for departing music director Leonard Slatkin, but she had a pleasing way with this rather sardonic piece, biting into the crunchy rhythms of the first movement with weight, if not always that extra degree of snarl high on the A string at the climaxes. Storgårds and the NSO gave an appropriate roughness to the orchestral part in the first movement, going with Gabetta in a sort of choked-up sound in the lyrical second movement, which felt a little caught in the throat emotionally, with little happy moments sounding as if from a music box toward the end. The horn solos, the only brass sound in the unusual orchestration, were rather fine, and many other remarkable moments shone, like the grotesque low woodwind sounds in the first movement and the celesta solo that mirrored the near-flawless harmonics from Gabetta in the second movement. Gabetta did not quite hold my ear captivated over the course of the very long cadenza that leads to the finale, which was not as compelling as it should be, and it felt like she hit her dynamic ceiling in the third movement when there was still room to soar.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, John Storgards leads NSO in fine tribute to Benjamin Britten (Washington Post, November 8)

Felix Stephan, Cellistin Sol Gabetta ist eine virtuose Managerin (Berliner Morgenpost, October 23)

David Kettle, Classical review: RSNO, Edinburgh (The Scotsman, October 14)
Storgårds probably should have violated the rules of the symphonic programming manual (overture, concerto, symphony -- always in that order) and finished the program with the Shostakovich, since putting Schumann's first symphony (B-flat major, "Spring") after it was an inevitable disappointment. Not that the performance was not full of surprises, because Storgårds's tendency toward fast and incisive tempi and attacks made it so. The lovely pastoral introduction was followed by a snappy and forceful Allegro molto vivace, with a nice build-up to the recapitulation and the bloom of the brass section, not heard throughout the first half, had an extra oomph to it. The second movement was far from the slow side of Larghetto but remained a little dull, the fault largely of the score, with the over-agitated third movement becoming the piece's high point -- fast but still smooth -- with the finale feeling still a little rough around the edges.

This performance will be repeated tonight (November 9, 8 pm) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. ADDENDUM: If you go tonight, applaud vigorously after the concerto, because Gabetta apparently had an encore ready to go, which we did not hear on Friday.

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