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NSO and Ax

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S. Albert, Symphony No. 1 ("RiverRun"), National Symphony Orchestra, M. Rostropovich

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Chopin, Piano Concertos 1/2, M. J. Pires, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, E. Krivine / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, A. Previn

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Dvořák, Symphony No. 5, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, J. Bělohlávek
Sometimes a concert can be more intriguing, intellectually rewarding, than truly exciting. All of the ingredients are there in this week's program from the National Symphony Orchestra, heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Two symphonic works not performed by the NSO in at least two decades are both well worth hearing, while the real draw for large parts of the audience was popular pianist Emanuel Ax in his latest appearance in Washington. All of it was performed well, with many beautiful moments, but as a whole it did not add up to something thrilling, but more solid and enjoyable.

This time Ax brought Chopin's second piano concerto, a piece that puts all of the focus on the solo part and has little in the orchestral accompaniment to recommend it. (The Chopin concertos are hardly rarities, with the first concerto heard from Yuja Wang just last year, and Lang Lang in 2005.) The last time the NSO performed the second concerto, the soloist was Evgeny Kissin, the sort of performer who rivets the listener in place with his playing. Ax played with a fluid rubato, with no glaring flaws, but overall the gossamer touch at the keyboard left a somewhat muted impression, making the piece, even its big conclusions in the outer movements, seem a little flat. He was best in the second movement, with lovely bel canto flights of fancy.

In this understated approach, Ax was abetted beautifully by guest conductor Hugh Wolff, making his regular appearance with the NSO (the last one was in 2009). Wolff, who got his start as associate conductor of the NSO under Mstislav Rostropovich, is a fine conductor, incisive of gesture and with strong ideas and an interest in music we want to hear. The music of Stephen Albert (1941-1992) was on my mind a lot earlier this year, preparing for a review of his fine song cycle To Wake the Dead. It was Rostropovich who commissioned Albert's first symphony ("RiverRun"), which won him the Pulitzer Prize, and the NSO that premiered it in 1985 (but played it last in 1993, under Rostropovich). The symphony was also inspired by James Joyce's enigmatic, inscrutable novel Finnegans Wake, and Wolff chose to play the abridged form of it, only the first and last movements, a version approved by the composer. Wolff conducted the work fastidiously, with every half-beat accounted for, bringing out the warbling textures of the first movement, the pulsating winds, accents of tubular bells, swells of Sibelius-like long-breathed trombones. Albert's style sounds more tonal than atonal, but with plenty of harmonic spice, that creates a nostalgic, folk music-like aura, especially in the last movement.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Conductor Hugh Wolff and NSO turn unfamiliar work into comfortable sound (Washington Post, April 5)
Rostropovich was also the last to conduct the NSO in Dvořák's fifth symphony (op. 76), back in 1979. (See Jens's survey of Dvořák symphony cycles.) Completed in the summer of 1875, it has a sweetly pastoral first movement, which Wolff took perhaps just a notch too fast, sculpting the dynamic contrasts nicely but with an overly rushed tempo. The strings made some beautifully glowing sounds in the luscious second movement, with all of the gradations of softness carefully guarded by Wolff. Dvořák included a nice slow introduction to the third movement, which gradually breaks the spell of the preceding slow movement, and again Wolff took the scherzo plenty fast but also kept it pleasingly light, making the triangle jingles lacy and not overbearing, for example. The fourth movement is supposed to be rather fast, too, and Wolff was not quite sure just how fast right at the start. At its fastest, it was exciting playing, indeed, with more longing slow passages, too, overall a fine symphony to have returned to the NSO's repertory.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night (April 5 and 6, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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