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Blomstedt and Ax Return to NSO

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Symphonies, Staatskapelle Dresden, H. Blomstedt
(box set, Brilliant Classics)
Most orchestras do well to offer some audience favorites now and again. This week's program from the National Symphony Orchestra, devoted to two major works of Beethoven, had that feel, and the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was well filled in response. The program featured two classical music veterans, with Herbert Blomstedt, born in Massachusetts but raised in Sweden, returning to the podium for the first time since his last appearance with the NSO in 2012. It was a good idea to pair him with pianist Emanuel Ax, as soloist in Beethoven's third piano concerto, a composer with whom he has a way, last heard in the second concerto with the NSO in 2010 (if not so much Chopin 2 in 2013).

As he did with the second concerto, Ax's approach was mostly ruminative, with a tempo choice on the slow side for the Allegro con brio marking and an emphasis on the soft and mysterious, especially in the development section, kept mostly sotto voce in both orchestra and keyboard. This put the spotlight on the slow movement, taken not too Largo but with enough rhythmic freedom that it had the feel of something quasi-improvised, a somewhat understated, at times almost off-the-cuff sound. The rondo finale was brisk enough to be perky fun, with a nice filigree touch from Ax in the chromatic runs. The comparison with the last time this work featured on an NSO concert, with Christoph Eschenbach and Lang Lang in 2012, was a reminder that faster is not always better. Perhaps taking advantage of the overture-less program, a little shorter than normal, Ax offered a most welcome encore, Brahms's A major intermezzo (op. 118, no. 2), where again simplicity reigned supreme, to most musical effect.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Herbert Blomstedt illuminates Beethoven, joyously, with the NSO (Washington Post, February 27)
The last time that the NSO played Beethoven's third symphony was also in 2012, with Christoph Eschenbach conducting. Blomstedt instead seemed to have taken some ideas from conductor Andrew Manze, in his historical study of the Eroica. Tempo choices were fast, with little fluctuation, and articulations crisp, although the power of modern instruments put some of the balances off here and there, especially causing some problems with woodwind lines being covered. Blomstedt once told Michael Steinberg, in a 1985 interview, that "a concert for me is a holy moment." A devout Seventh-Day Adventist, he makes an exception to his normal Sabbath observance to conduct on Friday evening and Saturday for that reason. Those who heard this concert could hardly avoid the sense of communion achieved by Blomstedt's earnest approach.

This concert repeats today and Saturday.

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