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NSO Prepares for Tour, Week 1

Christoph Eschenbach is back in town, for two weeks of concerts. To prepare the National Symphony Orchestra for its upcoming European tour (January 31 to February 10), Eschenbach is giving test runs of most of the planned repertory this week and next at the NSO's regular concerts. (They trotted out Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche this past November.) Last night, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, one of the tour's soloists, Tzimon Barto, joined the orchestra for Béla Bartók's second piano concerto, sandwiched between Beethoven's Egmont overture and Brahms's second symphony. Next week will feature Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, Beethoven's Grosse Fuge (in the Weingartner edition for string orchestra), and Mozart's fifth violin concerto, with Dan Zhu standing in as soloist. Julia Fischer was to have been the violinist on the tour, but she has had to withdraw and will be replaced by Arabella Steinbacher.

Barto is an odd duck in many ways, but it is unlikely that anyone would ever complain of a lack of theatricality in his playing. He certainly had the technical acumen, stamina, and guts to pull off this dastardly concerto, not heard from the NSO since 1973 when Antal Doráti conducted it. Barto played from a score, even turning his own pages, but the cascades of notes poured out in the first movement, with its tour de force cadenza, and he made the most of the barbaro octaves and pointed syncopations in the finale. There is an element of chaos built into the score, and Eschenbach and the orchestra had to make many tiny adjustments to keep this crazy train on the tracks, as Barto careened his way through it. It was exciting without wracking the listener's nerves too much, listening to him white-knuckle his way through it. The second movement, with its languid halo of string sound, was the high point, especially the soloist's odd duet with groaning (glissando) timpani. A hearty ovation also offered the chance to try out the encore for Paris, a slow, sotto voce version of the Largo from Bach's F Minor keyboard concerto (BWV 1056).

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Under Christoph Eschenbach’s baton, Tzimon Barto plays Bartok with NSO (Washington Post, January 18)
Beethoven's overture for Egmont had a forceful touch, which gave the right sense of the story's heroic but doomed struggle for liberty but also caused some aggressive intonation stridency in the low strings and woodwinds at times. The piccolo's whoops and hollers and jubilant brass made the conclusion triumphant and martial. Eschenbach had excellent ideas in the Brahms second symphony, and the NSO executed the piece beautifully. The opening movement glowed with moments of sunrise from its slow introduction filled with reverie. Eschenbach seemed to hold back on tempi and dynamics, allowing the second theme to smolder in the cellos, for example. The second movement, not one of the best Brahms composed, brooded and exulted, outshone by the pastoral simplicity and folk-inspired dance of the third. Only the fourth movement seemed not quite ready for the main event, not always sure-footed in the sense of ensemble cohesion. The signs are good, however, that this Brahms will make a fine centerpiece to showcase the NSO as Eschenbach leads them through Spain, his native Germany, and ending up in his old stomping grounds with the Orchestre de Paris at the Salle Pleyel.

This concert repeats tonight and Saturday night, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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