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NSO with Janowski

available at Amazon
Beethoven / Berg, Violin Concertos, A. Steinbacher, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, A. Nelsons

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B. Blacher, Orchestra-Variations on a Theme of Paganini (inter alia), Dresden Philharmonic, H. Kegel
Marek Janowski, the music director of the Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester Berlin, may have conducted the National Symphony Orchestra before this weekend, but Friday night's performance was the first time we have reviewed him here in Washington. Violinist Arabella Steinbacher, who has collaborated with Janowski on a couple of recordings, joined him again for Beethoven's violin concerto (op. 61). The audience was perhaps a little thin, a danger on Easter weekend, but it was an excellent concert, especially the second half.

Steinbacher played the Beethoven concerto, hardly an unfamiliar work after all, just a year ago with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. This performance left much the same impression, not as immaculate a rendition as Julia Fischer because of too many intonation issues and occasional squawks of tone (the first in the solo's opening set of rising notes), but Steinbacher has a puissant, sweet tone on the E string. She takes a lot of rhythmic freedom, and Janowski assisted by pushing and pulling back tempos, giving the piece some unpredictability, quite slow in the development and then speeding up considerably at the recapitulation. Steinbacher played the cadenzas by Fritz Kreisler, which have a lot of virtuosic flair, especially in the third movement, but are not exactly a daring choice in a large field of possibilities. The high point for Steinbacher was the slow movement, in which she was like a soprano floating above a beautifully balanced orchestra, exquisite in the orchestral pizzicato section, like a lute accompanying the soloist. (The ovation was not strong enough to merit an encore from Steinbacher, who reportedly played Kreisler's Recitativo and Scherzo on Thursday night, the same encore she played with the BSO last year.)

Janowski gets credit for bringing the Orchestra-Variations on a Theme of Paganini by Russo-German composer Boris Blacher (1903-1975), a composer reviewed live only once so far in Ionarts history. Blacher composed this piece in 1947, shortly after he returned to teaching in Germany, after being declared "degenerate" by the Nazis. Although both the concertmaster and associate concertmaster had sat out the Beethoven concerto, Nurit Bar-Josef was back for the second half, to play Paganini's original solo violin theme that introduces sixteen variations for orchestra, several less than a minute in duration and none longer than two minutes. Andrew McCredie, in his biographical sketch on Blacher in Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook (ed. Larry Sitsky), calls these variations "a thesaurus of orchestration and contrapuntal devices." From the first variation, in which swirling woodwind runs flare away from the theme in a crazy vortex, it is a tour de force, given a varied and solid performance led with confidence by Janowski, conducting without a score. Highlights included the iridescent fourth variation, suavely chromatic; the guitar-like pizzicato eighth variation; the tenth variation, with its jazzy flute and clarinet solos, the heritage of Blacher's love for American jazz heard in Berlin; the sixteenth-note Offenbach patter romp of the eleventh variation.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, National Symphony Orchestra’s all-German program glides from pretty to powerful (Washington Post, March 29)

Emily Cary, Arabella Steinbacher makes NSO debut (Washington Examiner, March 27)
Blacher's score stood up even by comparison to the final piece on the program, Tod und Verklärung (op. 24 -- last heard from the BSO last year) by the young, prodigiously talented Richard Strauss, one of the greatest masters of orchestration. Again working without a score, Janowski led a performance of striking softness and subtlety, the rasping breath of woodwinds and fading heartbeat of timpani at the opening, describing an artist on his deathbed, his mind flooded with memories. The haze of childhood recollections, dotted with sweet woodwind solos and the halo of harp arpeggiation, was followed by the rumble of the double basses and the sounds of artistic struggle, again all with excellent dynamic balances between sections. Strauss used a signature harmonic progression in this piece, heard very early in the piece and then in a more complete form at the moment of transfiguration -- I-ii-I-V7/V, over a tonic pedal. John Williams and every other film composer has copied it, but Strauss gives it a special power, altering it with many substitutions for the V7/V chord, delaying its final return until the final moments of the score. It was the sort of thing that this performance helped make clear.

This concert repeats this evening (March 30, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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