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Lured by Walton, Charmed by Chopin

Ionarts' thanks go to the selfless Robert R. Reilly, music critic for CRISIS and author of the delectable Surprised by Beauty, who served Ionarts duty at the NSO on Thursday night and came away surprised.

Thursday evening’s concert with the NSO, Leonard Slatkin at the helm, began with Schubert’s overture to Rosamunde as the curtain raiser. It was appropriately somber and then fleet but served only as a decent warm-up performance for the NSO because it was missing that bit of passion and sense of discovery that would have made it something more.

Strange. The opening to the Chopin Concerto No. 1 seemed to sing more than the Schubert had. The singing continued with the entrance of the young Chinese pianist Lang Lang. Chopin’s writing for orchestral accompaniment is sometimes dismissed as less than first-rate. One wouldn’t know it from the way the NSO played it. Lang Lang could not have asked for a better partnership for his finely nuanced, exquisite playing, particularly from the strings, which displayed the finest shading down to the softest pianissimo. Lang Lang, the NSO, and Slatkin went way beyond getting the notes right. This was a performance suffused with the breath of life. A standing ovation brought Lang Lang back for the Chopin Nocturne in D-Flat Major, op. 27, no. 2, as an encore that dismissed any doubts that this man has poetry in is fingers.

William Walton’s First Symphony is a glorious blend of Jean Sibelius and Gustav Holst, plus high-voltage electrification. The finest recording of it was made by André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra back in 1966. It remains unsurpassed, including by Previn himself, who seemed to have mellowed by the time he made his second version for Telarc. One of the few recordings that came close to Previn’s achievement was Leonard Slatkin's, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1988, on Virgin Classics. On the evidence of last night’s performance, however, Slatkin, too, seems to have mellowed. Alas.

available at Amazon
W. Walton, Symphony No. 1, Concerti, Sinfonia Concertante, A. Previn (1966 recording) et al. / LSO, et al.
The first movement should convey a blistering sense of forward propulsion and a barely constrained expectancy that bursts itself in the overwhelming climax. I missed the indispensable feeling of strain, as Slatkin seemed to search out the more lyrical moments. I was not gripped by what can and must be gripping music until the movement’s finale because Slatkin failed to ratchet up the tension sufficiently. The members of the orchestra should have been playing for their lives. One did not get that sense.

Other Reviews:

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Lang Lang's Sparkling Chopin (Washington Post, December 2)
The second movement was much better in terms of the telegraphic intensity that this works requires, but it was catch-up work. The third movement played to Slatkin’s preference for the gentler side of Walton. By the fourth movement, Slatkin had snapped everything into shape. I only wished he had played the whole work with a similar alertness and crackle.

So, the Walton was a mixed bag. There were too few times in the performance when I was listening to the music rather than to the playing of it. The orchestra was at its best when Slatkin tightened his grip but seemed to be about to lose its way several times when the tempos slackened. The audience seemed very happy because, even in a less than great performance, it is clear that this is great music.

I came for the Walton, but it is the Chopin that I shall remember.

Repeat performances will take place today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM.


Anonymous said...

Who would have thought that Lang-Lang turned out to be the main attraction... I may have to go Saturday, after all.


Garth Trinkl said...

Thanks for this and for all the excellent reviews, Jens. I almost went to the NSO last night for the Walton (we had heard Lang Lang do the Chopin with the N.Y. Phil earlier in the fall), but I remembered that I had another engagement (watching an advance screening of Spielberg's Memoirs of a Geisha, which happened to feature a John Williams score and solos from Yo Yo Ma and, a few, from Itzhak Perlman).

I recall fondly an NSO concert, I believe of last Feb., which featured a strong performance of Walton's Symphony #2, Peter Serkin playing a Mozart concerto, and a fine opening work which I can't now seem to recall. (I can't seem to get the NSO site to work.) It was an excellent and memorable program.

I know that you'll find your more inspiringly performed Walton #1 at some point, hopefully soon. Thanks again for your work.

Anonymous said...


The NSO Concert last February with Peter Serkin playing Mozart's C Minor Concerto and David Zinman conducting didn't feature a Walton Symphony. They played Elgar's 2nd Symphony. The opening piece of that concert was David Diamond's "Romeo & Juliet" piece. The reason I remember all this is because it was one of the most memorable concerts of last season, so much so that I attended twice.

Last night's performance of Walton was quite good. Walton was the main reason I was there, as I probably would have preferred to hear Chopin with someone else.

Nicholas in DC

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, for the record, the author of this post is a guest contributor, Robert R. Reilly. As for the concert last February, that Nicholas identified above, Jens did review it for Ionarts (David Zinman Turns Water into Wine, February 18, 2005). He was similarly impressed but noted a sad lack of attendance.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Reilly is right on the money here based on Friday performance: lumpy ill-balanced Schubert, superb Chopin with many individual touches of rubato well-matched by NSO. However Walton was the hilite, even with somewhat weighty first movement, which yet carried vital power & energy. 3d movement most intense I have heard and finale's tensions screwed up beautifully in lead up to coda.

Rune Eggpoe

ps I fear Mr. r.e. may be seeking to assume my identity

Garth Trinkl said...

[Note to self -- do not post to late on Friday afternoon after a long day of planning meetings.]

Thanks, Nicholas (and Charles). Yes, I went home and found that the opening work to last February's superb Zinman NSO concert was the lovely, strong neo-classical music from Romeo and Juliet by the late David Diamond, which is available on Delos and which I own. (I had remembered that the Mozart was the great Cm).

Imagine my horror when I saw that the concert featured the Elgar #2, rather than the Walton #2. (I think that I had earlier noticed the Decca Walton #1 and #2 in my collection, and hadn't properly focused on the fact that I had heard fine NSO performances of both Elgar's #2 and the Cello Concerto, with Truls Mork, both in the past year, and both with my spouse.) I agree that concert was a prime highlight of last NSO season, if not the highlight.

Nicholas, you appear my (our) type of intelligent, alive NSO patron. Can we clone you? Can we encourage you to bring more friends/colleagues to more NSO concerts? Thanks again.

And thanks to Mr Reilly for the above review.