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NSO Plays Vaughan Williams

The National Symphony Orchestra offered a persuasive concert, heard on Friday night, featuring two works written during World War II: William Schuman’s Prayer in Time of War (1942) and the Symphony No. 6 in E Minor (1944-47) by Ralph Vaughan Williams (shown at left, with his cat, in the 1940s). These pieces are grounded in an insecure realism as opposed to predictable patriotic froth. Both contain murky, persistent pulsations that instill a sensation of impatient waiting. A much more elaborate work, RVW’s sixth symphony also presents a stormy, three-note rising motif contrasted to a jolly second theme, charming pastoral-like strings, and a wandering, very soft fugal Epilogue (the final movement) that seemingly contains no intervals greater than a third. All four movements are cleverly linked by a single held note. The first half of the program offered the audience a chance to apply their own programmatic interpretations to what was skillfully played by the NSO. For example, did certain sonic constructions convey a battle, destruction, victory, death, or memories of simpler days? The vast amount of musical material conveyed by the NSO in these two works was remarkably impressive.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Slatkin and the NSO, Putting It All Together (Washington Post, October 19)
Emanuel Ax joined the orchestra for a reading of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat. Lacking the superior instrument, stability of tempi, and control (read: Ax had many split chords) of Yefim Bronfman’s performance of Brahms’s first concerto the evening before, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, this performance was disappointing. Ax played with abandon, though this approach was often on the verge of reckless and lacked beauty. The final Allegretto grazioso movement began with heaps of charm but did not continue to be grazioso nearer the end. The cello solos of David Hardy in the third movement were very lyrical.

This concert repeats tonight (October 20, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. After a week featuring NSO Pops concerts, Principal Guest Conductor Iván Fischer has a two-week stint on the podium, first with violinist Nikolaj Znaider (November 1 to 3) and second with flutist Emmanuel Pahud (November 8 to 10). Both of these concerts are likely to be worth your time.


Anonymous said...

A reminder that even the best ensembles change and can degrade over time. I'm not a fan of Schoenberg--my ears just can't adjust to serialism--but their recording back in 1990 of the two chamber symphonies and Verklarte Nacht is one of my favorites.

Garth Trinkl said...

I'd like to recommend Alfred Brendel's recording of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, with the Baden-Baden SWF Symphony, under Michael Gielen, on Philips 446683-2 (from the late 1990s, and with a highly worthwhile note on the Schoenberg concerto by Brendel).

The concerto is coupled with both of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphonies, which were started at about the same period; but with the second only completed decades later when Schoenberg was seeking greater musical communicativeness (and musical logic). I prefer the second Chamber Symphony to the first Chamber Symphony (though most everyone knows that I am more conservative than radical, and that I prefer a somewhat rich orchestral palette).