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NSO and Political Regrets

A cycle of the Beethoven symphonies is an old stand-by of music directors making their mark with a new ensemble. Marin Alsop did it with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and a focus on Beethoven was one of the (minor) disappointments of Christoph Eschenbach's second season with the National Symphony Orchestra. Not that the Beethoven symphonies are not remarkable pieces, but no matter how you dress them up, they are mostly a crowd-pleasing programming commonplace. The exception is when the symphonies are paired cleverly with other music, and this is what Eschenbach did last night with Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica") and a related Strauss work, in a soloist-free concert that featured some excellent playing from the orchestra's string section.

The NSO last played Richard Strauss's autumnal tone poem Metamorphosen under Lorin Maazel in 2006, and the work's plush, lavishly expressive qualities hit Eschenbach right in the wheelhouse. The low strings sounded particularly glowing in the bleak opening section, with some ensemble disparities evident when the full group came in, and even a few sour notes at one transition. Remembered passions surfaced and were submerged again in what is essentially a long stream-of-consciousness outpouring, references to Strauss's own operas and the constant worrying of a motif from the funeral march of Beethoven's "Eroica," stated most clearly by the double basses near the end. Only the electric-anxious vibrato of concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef stood out somewhat uncomfortably, a sound that is both irritatingly resistant to blending and yet curiously so distinctive and meaty that one misses it when it falls silent. All in all, this was a heartfelt rendition, if not necessarily fully polished.

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Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, ed. Bryan Gilliam
An elegy for twenty-three string players, the work's plangent qualities are often presented as Strauss's lamentation over the devastation of his native Munich in World War II. Musicologist Timothy L. Jackson has made a compelling argument in an essay ("The Metamorphosis of the Metamorphosen: New Analytical and Source-Critical Discoveries," pp. 193-242, in the book shown at left) that what Strauss was mourning was his own political involvement -- collaboration or merely tolerance -- with the Nazi regime. (This point was made in the excellent program notes by Thomas May, who is a friend and one-time colleague of mine, which are consistently the most engaging and erudite program notes published by any ensemble in the area.) The parallel to the "Eroica" symphony, from the manuscript of which Beethoven scratched out his initial dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte, could therefore be more than just the melodic allusions.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Christoph Eschenbach leads National Symphony Orchestra in emotional program (Washington Post, February 3)
Eschenbach's Beethoven was broad and Romantic, not necessarily my cup of tea, having been more taken with the leaner sound of Andrew Manze and others, drawing on period research. Eschenbach seated a large orchestra, with a full string section, and his interpretative approach was bold and forceful, all the accents hammered and the first movement's triadic theme squared off bluntly. My favorite moment in the first movement, the early entrance of the French horn just before the recapitulation, often signals something about the conductor's interpretation of the work: Eschenbach brought the sound of the orchestra down but the horn sounded rather uneventful, neither comic mistake nor revolutionary excess. The second movement was not so much a funeral march, in countless oozing gradations of tempo, but a Straussified proto-Metamorphosen. The oboe solos were plangent, and the horns had some great bull-in-the-china-shop moments in the trio of the third movement, but the flute had some less than refined solo outings. Whatever else might have been missing, it was hard to find fault with the dynamism of the fourth movement, a triumph of exaltation after what was, after all, a somber evening.

The NSO pairs another Strauss tone poem, Ein Heldenleben, with Beethoven, the fourth symphony, later this month, under highly recommended veteran guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt (February 16 to 19).

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