The last puzzle piece for the National Symphony Orchestra's European tour next month is the first symphony of Brahms. They presented it to the public at Friday night's concert in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The Un poco sostenuto introduction to the first movement felt a little lugubrious, with Eschenbach subdividing in a labored way, while the Allegro section was bold and forceful. The slow movement swooned a bit much for my taste in Brahms, but with some beautiful moments along the way, especially the duet between solo violin and horn and fine oboe solos. Tempo choice and textural balances aligned perfectly only in the third movement, exceptionally graceful, if the trio section seemed a little rushed. The interpretation was best in the finale, with the orchestra sounding all on the same page, in contrast to the less than polished Beethoven on Thursday.
The best moment in this symphony is the pick-up note into measure 61 of the fourth movement, right at the beginning of the Allegro non troppo, ma con brio, where you really know the piece has transitioned from C minor into C major. The key signature has already changed, but Brahms focused on the dominant, coming to rest on G major, which then becomes the starting note of the new tune in C major. It has a special sound because the melody-carrying instruments, both sections of the violins before the seconds split away, play that low G on the open first string. The late Prof. Robert Ricks, one of my teachers in graduate school, once spoke of that quarter note as his favorite pivotal moment, and every time I hear it, I think of him. In addition to his work teaching music theory, especially form and analysis, Dr. Ricks was for many years the conductor of the Catholic University Orchestra, and he knew this music from all sides of the page, as player, conductor, and theorist. It is a shame that he was not able to finish the book he was working on when he died, a study of orchestral instruments and how different composers used them.
Beethoven's seventh symphony was in better shape the second night, more unified and with generally better balances, although Eschenbach's choices still seemed odd in many ways. For example, shortly after the recapitulation the accompanying sixteenth notes shoot up an octave in the second violins and violas: this little change is not marked subito forte or anything, but on both nights Eschenbach turned to his right and had those sections just hammer those notes. This is just one instance that represents the whole approach, often zeroing in on some otherwise insignificant detail to make a point. The middle movements were still the most pleasing to my ear, although neither sounded quite as tight as it had the previous evening, with Eschenbach letting the tempo flag a bit in the second movement. His preference for a quick transition between the third and fourth movements caught the trumpets off guard in their opening blast. Once the tour gets under way, we will try to keep you updated on reviews from Europe.
The NSO does not play again in Washington until March, with a program featuring two Prokofiev symphonies and violinist Ray Chen (March 3 to 5).