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NSO Back from Europe

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Liszt, Piano Concertos, J.-Y. Thibaudet, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, C. Dutoit
(Decca, 1992)
The National Symphony Orchestra is back from a grueling European tour last month, although they may not have recovered yet. The group actually played its first post-tour program last week, but this week's program is the first to reach my ears since the ensemble's return. Heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Christoph Eschenbach conducted a truly puzzling program that opened with the world premiere of Tobias Picker's Opera without Words, commissioned by the NSO and given its world premiere at this performance.

I have not had the chance to hear much of Picker's music live, but I think of Picker more as an opera composer. This work, ostensibly a concerto for orchestra, did not do much to advance him in my estimation as an orchestral composer. One goes into such a piece expecting innovative orchestration, surprising uses of the instruments, and a range of styles and textures. In most of these expectations, it disappointed. There were solos for the string instruments, none all that remarkable, an extended one for the trombone; in the second movement, along with an odd bit for solo horn, there was a baffling passage for a single melodic line on the piano; the percussion was perhaps overly present, but aside from some lush moments in the fifth and final movement, little stood out in terms of orchestral color or form.

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet gave a generally fine performance of the solo part in Liszt's second piano concerto. The orchestra did not seem quite on the same intonation page with the piano at the opening of the piece, with its interwoven woodwind solos, but Thibaudet took all the work's flowing runs and thundering octaves in stride, with a few minor exceptions. The work feels like such a hodgepodge: hints of a Tchaikovsky ballet score in the first big orchestral interlude; harmonic and melodic turns that nuzzle up to the edge of jazzy Gershwin; a devilish scherzo that morphs into a pompous march; an elfin dance finale. In the second movement, we suddenly wake up and find ourselves in a cello sonata for a short time, which was a particularly lovely moment in this performance.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Picker premiere leads NSO’s packed program (Washington Post, March 11)
It has been a very Brahms year so far, with recent reviews of the composer's fourth symphony, first symphony, and German Requiem. Christoph Eschenbach's way with the first symphony did not give me much hope that his interpretation of the third symphony would be my cup of tea. Indeed, right from the opening bars, with an affected swell of a crescendo, it seemed overblown. The orchestra, following his lead, blasted (brass) and oozed (strings) their way through this most charming of symphonies, a piece easily marred by most kinds of excess. Much of the first movement felt rushed, leading to clipped endings of phrases, and parts of it were mannered, with sudden changes in tempo or dynamic that did not seem justified. The second movement was schmaltzy and overly slow, and the third movement, with its ardent opening cello melody, was overdone by stretching and overplaying, although the return of that main melody, now in the horn, was gorgeous. More distortions of tempo filled the finale, on top of which three of the composer's Hungarian Dances was just overkill.

This concert repeats on Saturday night only.

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