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Rachmaninoff and Elgar, Bridged

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Thursday evening (April 19, 2012) found the National Symphony Orchestra in top form. Under guest conductor Andrew Litton it essayed Frank Bridges’ The Sea, Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 played by Stephen Hough.

The sumptuous, opulent sound of these four contemporaneous composers’ late-romantic music filled the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The music makes major demands on the orchestra, all of which were met by the fabulous playing of the NSO. Whether from the Leonard Slatkin legacy, which favored British composers, or Andrew Litton’s talents, or most likely a combination of both, the NSO players shone in every department.

available at AmazonF.Bridge, The Sea et al.,
J.Judd / New Zealand SO

available at AmazonS.Rachmaninoff, Piano Concertos,
S.Hough / A.Litton / Dallas SO

available at AmazonE.Elgar, Symphonies 1 & 2,
J.Barbirolli / Philharmonia

available at AmazonE.Elgar, Sy.#1, In the South,
M.Elder / Hallé Orchestra

Given Slatkin’s penchant for things British during his long tenure here, it was a surprise to see that this was the first D.C. performance of The Sea. One could have been swallowed in the enormous cushion of sound that Litton and the NSO created in Bridges’ brilliant impressionistic tone poem but for the finely detailed lines of wind and brass that danced above the strings. The third movement adagio, titled Moonlight, was captured in all its subtlety (bravo to the timpanist for playing a true pianissimo). Litton got every bit of the poetry and nearly all the power of this piece, which greater grip should have delivered fully.

Stephen Hough and Litton have a Rachmaninoff history: They recorded the Rachmaninoff concertos with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra – a very well-received release on the Hyperion label. Therefore, their seamless partnership in the Rachmaninoff First was no surprise, and every bit a pleasure. Hough is a pianist who combines fingers of steel with a poetic soul. He nailed the power and passion of the piece, but also caught the playful and decorative aspects of the music.

Elgar’s First Symphony is a combination of powerful sentiment and stateliness, of the processional and the passionate interwoven. To have its full effect, its presentation must be heartfelt; neither sloppy nor sleek. Litton did not err like Georg Solti, who tried to conduct the symphony as if it were Beethoven. Solti’s mistakenly celebrated recording was, I found, perversely aggressive and put me off the work for many years until it was finally opened for me by the warmth of John Barbirolli’s justly famous 1962 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI. (I mention this because Solti’s recording is listed in the suggested recordings of the Playbill concert booklet. Avoid it at all costs, and look for Barbirolli, Boult, or Elder instead.)

Litton found the right balance. The first movement could as well have been titled The Sea, with its huge surges, ebbs and flows. There were some tricky, slightly blurred transitions, but this was a very minor quibble. The second movement, marked allegro molto, was played well-nigh perfectly with tremendous excitement. It was exhilarating. The adagio was heart stopping. Litton and the NSO pricelessly captured the hushed, almost sacred moments of such great tenderness that a musical friend of Elgar declared it “the greatest slow movement since Beethoven.” This is music to crack open the heart. The delicacy of the NSO’s delivery was refined to the point of perfection. Litton brought the symphony to an exuberant climax in the closing allegro.

Washington audiences have a reputation for being promiscuous with their standing ovations. They might well be, but in this case the performance fully justified it.

The program will be repeated Friday afternoon at 1.30PM and Saturday evening at 8PM.


Charles' Washington Post Review here.

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