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NSO with Blomstedt

After a cool fall from the National Symphony Orchestra, mostly without music director Christoph Eschenbach, the season got into full swing last month. Eschenbach, assisted by fine guest conductors, has focused on some symphonic mainstays: Sibelius 5, Mozart's Jupiter, Schubert 9, Bruckner 9. To go with the pairing of Strauss's Metamorphosen and Beethoven 3 two weeks ago, last night's program again put the NSO front and center, without a soloist, in the same composer match-up, with Beethoven's fourth symphony (op. 60) introducing Richard Strauss's gargantuan tone poem Ein Heldenleben (op. 40). At the helm was veteran conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who last led the NSO in 2009, in a performance anchored on Bruckner's ninth symphony. Celebrating his 85th birthday this year, Blomstedt may have seemed at times like a stiff wind could have blown him off the podium, but his musical intelligence has not been diminished. He led both of these works, sans score, with confidence and a sense of finesse that was inspiring, if perhaps without much flair, outward or inward.

The NSO has again played both of these works recently, Beethoven's fourth symphony last under Philippe Jordan, in 2009. Blomstedt's subtle approach seemed to position the piece as the "slender Greek maiden between the two Norse giants" of symphonies no. 3 and no. 5, as Robert Schumann famously put it, a work not burdened with great thoughts like the nature of heroism, political regrets, or the vicissitudes of fate. No. 4 is certainly no less pleasing than either of its neighbors, a look back at the influence of Haydn in many ways, which Blomstedt honored by fielding a smaller string section, bringing out the brass, woodwind, and timpani parts in greater relief. In the first movement, a very slow and deliberate Adagio introduced a lively fast section, effervescent but with some sluggishness in the violins. The slow movement moved along, too, with Blomstedt keeping the strings at a warm and soft level, allowing the woodwind solos to sing without forcing the tone, creating some beautifully delicate moments. A bouncy tempo enlivened the third movement, here as elsewhere the misplaced accents not overdone but simply shaking up the meter, with the trio jocular and just slightly slower. There was precious little manipulation of any of the tempi, least of all in the fast-moving finale, down to a charming bassoon solo on a flurry of notes, slowing down only for the wayward solos on the last page of the score, just before the final cadence.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Conductor Herbert Blomstedt lets the music speak for itself (Washington Post, February 17)
There is nothing quite like seeing the full orchestral forces arrayed on the stage for Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, both an extension of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, about an unnamed hero's struggles, and a specific autobiographical sketch of the composer's fight with his critics, consolation by his wife's love, and retreat from the world. Manfred Honeck was the last to conduct it with the NSO, in 2008, but we have also reviewed performances of the work by Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2006, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2006 under James Judd, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 2007 under Riccardo Chailly. This performance was not at the level of Jansons or Chailly (or Daniel Barenboim with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, available on YouTube), at least partially because there was little more rubato here than Blomstedt applied to the Beethoven. In both scores, the shading was done more through care with articulation, dynamics, and balance than manipulation of tempo. One thing was quite clear, and that was Blomstedt's beat, precise and small of gesture: the cacophony of the battle scene has rarely sounded so unified, a death march of Shostakovich-like terrors. The bleat of the critics -- the wail of clarinet, cackle of flutes, and tuba motto thought to be a reference to Doktor Döhring (Theodor Döhring, a disapproving Munich critic) -- was raucous and discordant, and the swoop of the hero's theme exultant. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef had a star turn in the violin solos, the representation of Strauss's wife, Pauline, alternately tender, chattering, acidic. While one wished that the entire string section could have the same zing in some of the fullest sections, the brass were right on the money, as was the pastoral solo for English horn announcing the hero's retreat from the world.

This concert repeats on Saturday night (February 18, 8 pm) and Sunday afternoon (February 19, 3 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


Anonymous said...

We went to Strathmore last night for a BSO concert. Has anyone reviewed it?

Charles T. Downey said...

Not sure if the Post sent someone, but it wasn't me. I went to hear the program tonight in Baltimore. Thoughts tomorrow!