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NSO and Rachmaninoff 2nd

Before the concert of the National Symphony Orchestra got under way this Thursday, Leonard Slatkin gave a little speech in which he explained how the three pieces on the program were all connected, even if he only thought of their connection after putting it together. Haydn's Symphony No. 94, the "Surprise," Kurt Atterberg's 1926 Horn Concerto in A Minor, op. 28, and Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony all, so he claimed, make us think differently about the way we think about music. Rachmaninoff's beautiful melodies, we learned, were actually embedded in very strict and rule-guided symphonic structure, the Atterberg concerto—not an "Uh-oh... one of those..." works as the audience might expect, he quipped—would surprise us with its beauty and accessibility, and the Haydn, much beloved and well known, has its surprise not in the startling chord in the second movement but in the fourth movement's timpani beats. (Hence the German name, "Mit dem Paukenschlag" [not "mit der Paukenschlag," Maestro!].)

With this somewhat spurious connection culled from the works, Mr. Slatkin only underscored that the program had more or less been cobbled together without rhyme or reason. All the same though when the music is good... and the music was good! Haydn, even if marginally heavy-footed, is always a party for your ears and woefully underrated in this country. A bit old-fashioned and big-boned, it could have used some extra gaiety (Beecham and Jochum have recored versions that compel you to dance), a bit lither, a bit more of a spring in its step... but it was finely executed and perfectly enjoyable. Kurt Atterberg's horn concerto called on the considerable skills of NSO principal Martin Hackleman, a former Canadian and Empire Brass member. The Maestro was right when he attested to the work's high accessibility, but between me and the octogenarian lady behind me (complaining that the Haydn shouldn't be called a symphony because it didn't have enough "substance"), I dare say that most of the audience thought the work still a tad too modern. (The Haydn-critical madame, however, preferred it over the "Surprise.")

There is a bit of Richard Strauss in it (though it's not nearly as difficult as Strauss' horn concerto), which is not surprising given Strauss's stature during the 1920s, even in Atterberg's native Sweden. More surprising was the consistent notion of Ravel that I got... it struck me as a modernized horn version of Ravel's Piano Concerto. While Atterberg may not be a stunning new discovery to the classical music lover, it was and is certainly wonderful to hear this luscious work in concert.

S. Rachmaninov, Synphony #2, The Rock, Pletnev, National Russian Orchestra
Rachmaninoff's second symphony, composed in 1905/06 calls for almost the entire group of NSO players, including eight double basses who tower over their colleagues. The symphony was extraordinarily well performed, with little left to wish for. Its romantic sweeps and surges in the first movement were executed to their fullest effect. With the Washington players seemingly in top form, it was no loss and only gain that the Philadelphia Orchestra had switched from the planned Rachmaninoff 2nd to the Mahler 5th last Monday. (Presumably after finding out that the NSO was going to play the same piece just three days later.)

The third movement, conducted without a baton, left nothing to be desired in terms of feeling and was, if any criticism must be found, a bit on the broad, dwelling side. The rousing finale (Allegro vivace) made up for that, anyway, and its charged conclusion was greeted with enthusiastic and much deserved applause. Even the standing ovations (usually just a cover for people trying to find their car keys) might have been meaningful for a change.

This concert (arguably the best performance of the NSO I have heard so far) will be repeated this Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm. Empty seats on Thursday indicated that it should be easy to make last-minute plans to catch this unexpected gem in the NSO's season.

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