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Nikolaj Znaider Lifts a Baton

available at Amazon
Mahler, Symphony No. 1, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, R. Kubelik
(Audite, 2000)

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Mozart, Piano Concertos 20-27, M. Bilson, English Baroque Soloists, J. E. Gardiner
(Archiv, 1989)
Christoph Eschenbach has used some of his remaining time at the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra to give some aspiring conductors a shot. The results with Nathalie Stutzmann were inspiring; with violinist Nikolaj Znaider, who appeared as soloist with the NSO last week (while I was in Greece), not as much. Most conductors get their start playing an instrument, and some continue to do both, so there is nothing all that surprising about another violinist taking up the baton. A Mozart piano concerto and Mahler's first symphony showed competence in conducting -- "knowing how the music goes," as Znaider told Anne Midgette in the Washington Post -- but little beyond that.

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has dazzled as a recitalist, but his take on the solo part in Mozart's 27th piano concerto left something to be desired. Most of the problems came from an unsteady tempo, as Grosvenor rushed through many of the passages in sixteenth notes, requiring readjustments from the orchestra to cover his unpredictability. The difference was quite striking when he played Mozart's cadenzas, where without any ensemble issues to worry about, Grosvenor shone as he has in the recital format. Znaider was not much help, settling on quite different pacing for the orchestral sections of the slow movement, for example, and allowing some of the delicate woodwind lines to be swallowed up in orchestral sound. Grosvenor's right hand dominated the solo part, while most of the details of the left hand went unheard, and his very fast tempo choice in the finale pushed that movement from being somewhat avuncular to a sound that was harried and, more often than not, a little mechanical.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Soloist-turned-conductor impresses with NSO’s Mahler (Washington Post, April 8)

---, “You can make good music almost anywhere.” (Washington Post, March 29)

Robert Battey, NSO wraps a fine new piece in competent but uninspiring chestnuts (Washington Post, April 1)
It is easy to get the loud, exciting parts of Mahler's first symphony right, and when Znaider gave the brass its head in this work's explosive sections, he predictably propelled many people in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to their feet. As Jens Laurson has put it, however, performances and recordings that "delight those who are looking for a show in what can admittedly be seen as Mahler’s showiest symphony" are in many ways missing the point. The other parts of the "Titan" are to be treasured in a rendition that is a little more deeply thought through, and here the forest murmurs of the first movement were a little drab. The second movement felt awfully fast, so that the later outbursts had to be really fast. The comic funeral march of the third movement got off to a good start in the double-bass solo, but too much of the movement, which has so many weird, idiosyncratic moments, had a disappointing sameness, even those bumptious folk-band interruptions. The luscious bits of the finale, too, were foursquare, a little plain, which left only the bombast to be admired.

This program repeats just once, on Saturday evening, April 9.

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