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NSO, Fricke, & Christine Brandes

The National Symphony Orchestra borrowed Heinz Fricke from next door in their concert with soprano Christine Brandes on Thursday, January 13th. And Fricke, restricted in his choice of programming at the Washington National Opera, seems to have made good use of the liberties in choosing repertoire as a guest conductor as well as the NSO's size advantage over the WNO orchestra. It was an evening of favorites of his, notably R. Strauss and Wagner, for which he has been rather famous in Europe. It also struck me as a harkening back to Fricke's days at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, where he worked with Wolfgang Sawallisch. (I heard him in a performance of Strauss's Die Feuersnot there, a thumbling [?] then, still, in fourth grade and too little to remember much more than the stage sets.

Fricke's notable efforts in the Tannhäuser overture (the program notes did not mention it: it was the "Dresden Version") were hampered only by an NSO string section that—with some notable exceptions—seemed disengaged, uncaring for the music, and scrubbing down the notes, counting the minutes until they could go to their suburban homes. Unfortunately, concertmaster Nurith Bar-Josef's always supreme efforts could not lift this otherwise marvelous work into a higher sphere. It's not the first time I have noticed this curious lack of enthusiasm among some NSO players, and even with its occasional nights of greatness, the orchestra is still miles away from being a top-10 orchestra until it has mostly players who actually love music.

Interrupting my internal diatribe was Christine Brandes, who sang Mozart arias with a fair amount of beauty and no great distinction. "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto" (Don Giovanni) came with unclean entries and a notable strain on the voice. "Zeffiretti, lusinghieri" (Idomeneo) was all-around pleasing. "Giunse alfin il momento" (Le Nozze di Figaro) was backed by some rather plain Mozart playing, and "Ditelo voi pastori" (Il re pastore) showed that even Mozart had some weaker moments, but the singing was fine if restricted in the higher parts.

If all that boded ill for the second half (never mind that listening to the Tannhäuser overture live is worth a trip to the concert hall for me), there were some positive surprises in store. The Prelude & Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde wasn't it yet. Unlike Tim Page, who gave a generally enthusiastic review (Heinz Fricke's Smashing NSO Debut, January 14, Washington Post), I thought the Wagner to be pedestrian and unsubtle, with clunky shifts of tension where I'd like to hear gradual transitions. Seldom enough performed in this town, it is still impressive as a piece, but if the work could not overcome my reservations about the performance, the following Richard Strauss songs could!

"Das Rosenband" (op. 36, #1) already has all the harmonic twists of Strauss's Four Last Songs and is delicious in combination with Mme. Brandes's voice, which I thought much better suited the Strauss than it did the Mozart. "Ich wollt’ ein Sträußlein binden" (op. 68, #2) was just about as fine, but surpassed by the "Wiegenlied" (op. 41, #2). Even with Mme. Brande's diction making the German completely indiscernible (to my native German ears, while reading along in the text) it was pure joy. Aside: Who goes to hear Strauss songs for the text, anyway? "Der Morgen" (op. 27, #4) is proof that those who find Richard Strauss a lesser composer than Gustav Mahler (pace Sir Simon Rattle) fail to go beyond Strauss's purely orchestral works. The appreciative audience must have felt similarly when it acknowledged every individual song with generous applause. The luscious violin part also gave Mlle. Bar-Josef the opportunity to showcase what enthusiastic, impeccable playing sounds like. "Zuneigung" (op. 10, #1) finally—short but supreme—had them wrapped around Mme. Brandes's finger and brought out rarely seen standing ovations before the concert's end. "Till Eulenspiegel's lustige Streiche" (op. 28) was the tumultuous and rambunctious bit of bold fun it should be and was particularly well played by sections in the orchestra that usually get less exposure. It was almost enough to make up for sabotaging the Wagner.

I will have to add the following caveat to my review: I had just and only barely recovered from food poisoning and had little energy or good will that may well have affected my usual charitable mood. Only the most supreme and perfect performances will transcend one's personal disposition; this concert was not one of them. But it was fine, is bound to get better with repeat performances, and if you like the repertoire (who wouldn’t?), it is worth hearing. Tickets for performances tonight (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday) at 8:00 pm can be bought at

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