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More Great Violin Playing with the NSO: Julia Fischer & Khachaturian

Julia Fischer

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Bernstein, Early American Recordings & Lectures

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J. S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas

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Glazunov, Khachaturian, Prokofiev, Violin Concertos

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W. A. Mozart, Violin Concertos 3&4

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W. A. Mozart, Violin Concertos 1,2&5

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P.I.Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto
In a month that is particularly strong in violinists gracing Washington, Julia Fischer, the National Symphony Orchestra’s second such offering after the sublime Leonidas Kavakos, enjoyed a much better turnout in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall on Thursday night than the Greek/Finnish team from last week – and that despite heavy rain and consequent heavy traffic. The attendees were rewarded with a chiseled, pristine rendition of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto. A repeated buzzing in the vigorous opening aside (interpretive choice?), Mlle. Fischer fiddled her way through the concerto with the élan and clean agility she has gained a reputation for.

Her playing is neither showy nor ever-pushing emotional boundaries; it convinces by sheer quality and that air of irreproachability that lends, if anything, a cool touch to her tone. It was, especially in the Andante sostenuto, of such beauty that it had to be admired, even if not necessarily fallen in love with. It is tempting to retreat to the hackneyed label that used to be attached to Victoria Mullova: “Ice Queen”. But it’s a label as misleading as it is useless. Julia Fischer’s playing might never be called ‘gritty’ or ‘earthy’ – even in a fairly robust work like the Khachaturian concerto – but it certainly isn’t cold. Rather it is refined and concerned with making the music sound as good as it can. With performances like this one, or last year’s with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (in the Beethoven concerto with Temirkanov conducting), she is well on her way to becoming one of the world’s foremost violinists. The chance to hear her should not be missed.

Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 – long known as Symphony No.5 because he had suppressed his four earliest attempts in that genre – is America’s adopted romantic symphony and, much like his “American” String Quartet op.96 and Quintet op.97 (the “American Suite” in A Major is strangely less well known), rank high in radio play-lists and concert programs on this side of the Atlantic. The symphony might be given preferential treatment because of its title – “From the New World” – but it also happens to be a genuinely great composition of which it is difficult to tire, even upon umpteenth listening.

That there really isn’t a whole lot that’s “American” about it – Bernstein hilariously takes that myth apart in one of his 1950’s lectures (available on CD together with the performances and lectures of and about LvB Sy.#3, Tchaik.#6, Brahms #4, and Schumann #2) – has not diminished the Ninth’s popularity. The second movement’s “Goin’ home” theme, for example (played on bag-pipes during the funeral scene of “The Departed”), provided the music for the William Arms Fischer faux-spiritual, not vice versa. That the walking bass line in the same Largo (over the “Scotch snap”) is to have been derived from Jazz is an entertaining, but silly idea.

Haunting nostalgia, brazen Bohemian dances, and all the skills of good old European symphony-making are, however, included aplenty. Under Emmanuel Krivine’s careful eyes and hands, the NSO played with tenderness and devotion, force and sonority. A few incidental rough patches by the brass in the first movement were of no consequence to the fine impression the symphony left, underscoring the excellent groundwork they laid for Julia Fischer in the Khachaturian and the in turn bright and shimmering, bold and frivolous Russian Easter Overture by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Repeat performances will take place on Friday, at 1.30PM and Saturday, 8PM.