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NSO-at-Large: Frankfurt Hijinks

One free day and a three hour bus-ride through snowy Lower Franconia after the Nuremberg performance, the NSO arrived in Frankfurt for their last of four concerts in Germany on their European Tour. The musicians had a few hours of rest or homed in on nearby free Wi-Fi cafés with the dead-on accuracy that marks the veteran traveler. Then they bused and walked over the outwardly gorgeous Alte Oper, the old opera building gutted by the war and remodeled and reopened as a dedicated concert hall in 1981. There they had a quick run-through the Bartók Second Piano Concerto with Tzimon Barto, who stopped by in Frankfurt just for that occasion, only to be right off to Paris with the last plane out, where he would rejoin the band for the final European stop. (The orchestra would then go onto Muscat, Oman, for the final concert.)

Because scheduled violinist Julia Fischer is busy increasing the size of her family, Arabella Steinbacher stepped in to fill the tour’s Mozart vacancy. About the same age, both Ana Chumachenko students, compatriots, and both with a penchant for an emphasis on pretty playing, Steinbacher is a natural, seamless replacement for Fischer. At her best, she brings more gumption to the music, while Fischer drifts of into ethereal realms. That showed less in the Mozart, which was altogether decent and indeed very beautifully played by the soloist and—happily—not too controlled. But it sure came to the fore in the Prokofiev encore where Steinbacher’s innate lyricism melted with the natural edges of the first movement of the Opus 115 Sonata for Solo Violin. The result was something very close to palate-cleansing encore-perfection. (Steinbacher will perform the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the NSO later this March.)

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Opp.131 & 133, orchestrated,
P.Oundjian / Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam

available at Amazon
B.Bartók, Concerto for Orchestra et al.,
F.Reiner / CSO
RCA Living Stereo

Before and after the Mozart, the NSO performed Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (in the Weingartner orchestration), and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Their fugal connection notwithstanding, neither are natural choices for this tour. The former isn’t, because it’s too damn difficult a work even for the most drilled full-size orchestra's string sections to just play without meticulous rehearsing. Anything less than perfection will result in semi-satisfactory experiences at best. That’s unfortunate, because the work itself, and even the idea of it, is neat. It’s a charming musical anachronism that challenges our perceptions of authenticity and repertoire. It’s a vignette from two different times at once; first the composition (which we consider timeless), then the history of its reception (which we don’t), which includes the orchestration: a means of spreading the good word, when chamber recitals were rare, recordings not invented, and amateurs not up to the challenge of a piece like this. Given that the NSO was asking for trouble, it received rather little. Despite or because of Eschenbach’s unorthodox beat—downright gesticulitious [sic] in this work—the orchestra stayed clear of pitfalls and achieved a succès d'estime.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is more forgiving. Precision is nice, not essential. Most conductors and most of the famous recordings treat it more akin to Le Sacre: Rhythms, exaction, and individual instruments dominate. Eschenbach’s way was more akin to a Firebird: A deliberate slathering of color and mood with angry trumpets, smooth brass chorales, a crawling Elegia, an impish Intermezzo, and a brazen finale. You wouldn’t want to hear Lutosławski’s such concerto that way, but it worked well enough on this occasion. Well enough, also, to impress the audience enough to just applaud long enough to suggest the encores were demanded. They were the same as given in Nuremberg, just switched around.

Unconfirmed factoids: With stops in Hamburg, Nuremberg, and Frankfurt (but not Berlin, Cologne, and Munich), we assume the tour-planner was either avoiding orchestra-hot-spots or just very, very hungry!

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