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Second Opinion: Bělohlávek Brings Martinů

available at Amazon
Martinů, Symphonies, BBC Symphony Orchestra, J. Bělohlávek
(Onyx, 2011)

available at Amazon
Mozart, "Prague" Symphony, Prague Philharmonia, J. Bělohlávek
(Supraphon, 2003)
For a National Symphony Orchestra program concluding with Beethoven's evergreen "Emperor" concerto, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was surprisingly undersold on Friday night. Your reviewer was the only soul in Row T on the left side of the auditorium, and mine was not the only such row. The Beethoven was also the debut of Igor Levit, a pianist still in his 20s who has garnered unreserved praise from Alex Ross among others. Levit had to cancel his Washington recital debut this past May, an event that might have brought more attention: even so, it was somewhat surprising to see such a low turnout, especially with Mozart's always popular "Prague" symphony as a concert opener. Surely, the unfamiliar name of Bohuslav Martinů, whose sixth symphony the NSO played for the first time, could not have turned people off?

Martinů is an Ionarts favorite, an undervalued composer whose music we wish we heard far more often in performance. Günther Herbig was the last conductor we heard lead the sixth symphony, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. Bělohlávek, though, is a Martinů specialist, and he expertly guided the NSO musicians through the piece: the growls and murmurs and endless color variations the composer creates with the large orchestra, but with the focus on long-lined melodies that soar atop the chaos of fantasy. If Martinů indeed had in mind a reference to Berlioz -- he reportedly thought of subtitling the work "Nouvelle symphonie fantastique" before settling on "Fantaisies symphoniques" -- then the idée fixe was likely the obsessively stated half-step motif that runs through the work, opposed to a more tender second theme in the first movement, ornamented with a lovely violin solo from concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef. Other obsessions, perhaps, are expressed in the buzzing second movement, tinged with more biting dissonant edges, repeated chords and notes, and almost Shostakovich-like turns toward militarism. The idea of a series of symphonic fantasies, as the subtitle puts it, is expressed in an endless range of exotic colors, ending in a third movement that opens with and returns to an intense funeral march or a sort of elegy. The piece fascinates, and this performance was gripping.

Other Reviews:

Robert R. Reilly, Jiří Bělohlávek and the NSO (Ionarts, November 20)

Anne Midgette, Czech guest conductor leads pianist Igor Levit in strong debut at NSO (Washington Post, November 20)

David Rohde, The National Symphony Orchestra with Guest Conductor Jiri Belohlavek and Pianist Igor Levit (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, November 20)
Bělohlávek seemed to have chosen Mozart's "Prague" symphony by way of contrast, reducing the NSO strings to a size similar to that of the Prague Philharmonia, the chamber orchestra he founded in the 1990s. While the NSO did not always seem to be right in synch with Bělohlávek's gestures, leading to some sloppy articulations in the violins, the result was a rarefied sound, controlled and soft. Articulations were often clean and detached, giving a graceful lilt, and he brought out as many inner contrapuntal details as he could, even at loud dynamics. The musicians also seemed to struggle with Bělohlávek's subdivided tempo in the second movement, which he kept trying to keep from bogging down too much in rubato, but the delicacy of the performance, with filigree clarity, was a pleasure to hear. The third movement, taken on the breakneck side of Presto, was equally graceful, especially the percolating woodwind sections.

Little about Levit's performance in the Beethoven seemed to justify the raptures he has received from other critics. There were certainly no technical complaints, as he opened the piece with those swirling cadenzas, and the third movement was assured and clean, although something about his playing was perhaps too well-behaved. He took some of the softer moments with a music-box, tinkling approach, savoring the first hints of the finale's main theme as he transitioned into the third movement, for example. At the same time, many of those moments felt etiolated more than anything else, the attempt to make them special falling flat. Levit is a musician to keep an ear on, to be sure, but this was not his finest hour.

This concert repeats this evening.


Anonymous said...

I wonder how full was the concert hall on Thursday. On Saturday there was a fairly good attendance. I rarely attend Friday's concerts, but from what I read - and the few that I do attend - it seems to me that Friday is the day with the lowest attendance for NSO concerts.

Charles T. Downey said...

That may be true: I don't know. I attend on Fridays here and there, and I cannot say that I noticed generally smaller audiences on Fridays as opposed to Saturdays, but that is hardly scientific.