Martinů, Symphonies, BBC Symphony Orchestra, J. Bělohlávek (Onyx, 2011)
Mozart, "Prague" Symphony, Prague Philharmonia, J. Bělohlávek (Supraphon, 2003)
Martinů is an Ionarts favorite, an undervalued composer whose music we wish we heard far more often in performance. Günther Herbig was the last conductor we heard lead the sixth symphony, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. Bělohlávek, though, is a Martinů specialist, and he expertly guided the NSO musicians through the piece: the growls and murmurs and endless color variations the composer creates with the large orchestra, but with the focus on long-lined melodies that soar atop the chaos of fantasy. If Martinů indeed had in mind a reference to Berlioz -- he reportedly thought of subtitling the work "Nouvelle symphonie fantastique" before settling on "Fantaisies symphoniques" -- then the idée fixe was likely the obsessively stated half-step motif that runs through the work, opposed to a more tender second theme in the first movement, ornamented with a lovely violin solo from concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef. Other obsessions, perhaps, are expressed in the buzzing second movement, tinged with more biting dissonant edges, repeated chords and notes, and almost Shostakovich-like turns toward militarism. The idea of a series of symphonic fantasies, as the subtitle puts it, is expressed in an endless range of exotic colors, ending in a third movement that opens with and returns to an intense funeral march or a sort of elegy. The piece fascinates, and this performance was gripping.
Robert R. Reilly, Jiří Bělohlávek and the NSO (Ionarts, November 20)
Anne Midgette, Czech guest conductor leads pianist Igor Levit in strong debut at NSO (Washington Post, November 20)
David Rohde, The National Symphony Orchestra with Guest Conductor Jiri Belohlavek and Pianist Igor Levit (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, November 20)
Little about Levit's performance in the Beethoven seemed to justify the raptures he has received from other critics. There were certainly no technical complaints, as he opened the piece with those swirling cadenzas, and the third movement was assured and clean, although something about his playing was perhaps too well-behaved. He took some of the softer moments with a music-box, tinkling approach, savoring the first hints of the finale's main theme as he transitioned into the third movement, for example. At the same time, many of those moments felt etiolated more than anything else, the attempt to make them special falling flat. Levit is a musician to keep an ear on, to be sure, but this was not his finest hour.
This concert repeats this evening.