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Slatkin and Znaider Return to NSO

available at Amazon
Elgar, Violin Concerto, N. Znaider, Staatskapelle Dresden, C. Davis

(released on January 5, 2010)
Sony Red Seal 88697 60588 2
As previewed last week, Nikolaj Znaider appeared with the National Symphony Orchestra this weekend (we heard the concert last night), as part of a tour coinciding with the release of his new recording of Edward Elgar's violin concerto. (He will remain in the United States much of this month, also playing the work in Boston and Milwaukee.) The concerto was premiered one hundred years ago this year by Fritz Kreisler, who played it on the same Guarneri del Gesù violin now on loan to Znaider. It is an odd work, with fast movements most memorable for the tender slow themes in them, and so substantial in scope that Kreisler himself often performed the work, after its premiere, in an abridged form. Perhaps as a result, it has never quite made it to chestnut status with orchestras (an unenviable fate): the NSO last performed it in 2002 with Midori.

These concerts also marked the return of former NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin, who has not stood on a podium since a heart attack two months ago, suffered while conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Slatkin, looking trim and lively after some rehabilitation and treatment that reportedly helped him lose weight and recalibrate his life style, was greeted with a rousing ovation. Seemingly invigorated, he dove into the Elgar concerto, giving the orchestral introduction to the first movement remarkable energy and forcefulness. The Danish violinist, by contrast, delicately pulled apart the solo's many threads, at his best playing the lonely and fragile melodies (often inspired by Elgar's muse du jour, Alice Stuart-Wortley, under the name of "Windflower," a wild blossom pictured at left) that are the concerto's loveliest parts. Slatkin was on his game throughout the work, his baton right with Znaider's every whim, and for the most part the NSO was, too. This Guarnerius is not a power instrument, at least in Znaider's hands, and was most luscious in the second movement, as evanescent tone evaporated at the ends of soaring phrases over a diaphanous veil of orchestral sound. The fireworks were mostly on the money, too, especially the well-tuned multiple stops of the third movement, although Znaider seemed sometimes to have to force the instrument to project.

Other Articles:

Tim Smith, Slatkin, Znaider, National Symphony hit expressive peaks in Elgar concerto (Baltimore Sun, January 8)

Anne Midgette, Leonard Slatkin returns to conduct National Symphony Orchestra's Elgar concerto (Washington Post, January 8)

---, Nikolaj Znaider plays Elgar's violin concerto 100 years after Kreisler premiere (Washington Post, January 7)

Jeremy Eichler, Straight from the source (Boston Globe, January 1)
The program paired the Elgar with another piece from England in the years just before World War I, Gustav Holst's suite The Planets, and there were many points in both works that one was aware that the music was cut largely from the same harmonic cloth. Here, though, the NSO did not play with the same unity of purpose or fervor, once again seeming to fall into a somewhat adversarial relationship with Slatkin. This was especially true in the opening three movements: Mars and Mercury a little clumsy in terms of ensemble as Slatkin's beat appeared to be impatiently just ahead of the already fast tempi. The end of the work did not fare much better, with interesting colors drawn from the sometimes enigmatic orchestration of Saturn and Uranus but the mystical Neptune movement not allowed to meander much. This was perhaps to avoid overexposing the tendency of the women of the Choral Arts Society to sag flat as the sound emanated from their hidden position. (A dimming of the lights at the movement's conclusion was bumbled slightly, so that the lights came back on before the choir had stopped singing, perhaps having missed the cue in the darkness.) Only in Jupiter did the group's playing really cohere, especially in that grand, heroic statement of the Thaxted melody. It seemed at that moment that bouncing back from a health crisis, which could have been more serious than it fortunately was, had put Leonard Slatkin in a truly jovial mood.

This program repeats tonight, at 8 pm in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Jessica Duchen and Bob Shingleton have another theory about Elgar's mysterious dedications in the Violin Concerto and the Enigma Variations.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but if you're going to be critical of the choral ending of "The Planets", then you should at least know that they were sharp, rather than flat. Rather important, or otherwise you're headed in the wrong direction.

Charles T. Downey said...

I know the difference between flat and sharp quite well, but thanks for reading and expressing your opinion. I also know how to sign my name to my criticism.

Anonymous said...

So why list anonymous as an option if you're just going to condemn someone for using it?

Charles T. Downey said...

So why list anonymous as an option?

Generosity of spirit toward the pusillanimous.

Anonymous said...

The truely generous are never puerile.

Anonymous said...

Correction: truly generous