NSO at the Barbican – 3rd May

The Mannheim Orchestra performs as Baron von Münchhausen’s rocket-ship (in Gustave Doré’s 1860s illustration) journeys to the moon. (Images: AKG London).

The Mannheim Rocket [UK Premiere]
Chichester Psalms
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Pablo Strong (treble)
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Brighton Festival Chorus, National Symphony Orchestra of Washington DC conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 May, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Taking an orchestra on tour is no mean feat – colossal organisation and expense. This three-week NSO trip to Europe, with a concert virtually every night, literally takes off courtesy of Boeing.

No matter how easy it now is to download “your favourite songs”, re-write this or go on-line for that, live music-making is irreplaceable (some audience members aside!) … a photo-finish with collectors’ recordings in fact. New CDs from American orchestras, archive releases excepted, are today thin on the ground. Leonard Slatkin has been Music Director of the NSO since 1996. Early issues included a marvellous Prokofiev Sixth Symphony (not released in the UK!) and ones devoted to John Corigliano and Joseph Schwantner; a swap from RCA to Decca secured Michael Kamen’s The New Moon in the Old Moon’s Arms. Your writer hopes the NSO might produce an in-house box of live performances … well I can dream, and have my wish-list to hand.

This concert therefore proved an invaluable opportunity to form an up-to-the-minute appraisal of the NSO’s current standing under Slatkin whose long and notable relationship with the St Louis Symphony is now being replicated in Washington (he’s there until at least 2006). As well as being a stone’s throw from the Oval Office and in contact with those who govern the States, Slatkin is in the process of building an impressive and individual-sounding orchestra.

The choice of repertoire was perhaps not the best to fully sample what the NSO can do; it was though a popular programme and, with a charismatic pianist, proved successful box-office. A shame that a second London concert couldn’t be arranged – Barber’s Second Essay, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Walton’s First Symphony (I’m still dreaming) – now that would really have showcased the NSO; the solo spot for the strings an acknowledgement of their superb quality.

The NSO’s calling-card was ten minutes’ worth of John Corigliano, created from musical history and the composer’s youthful imagination. Intriguing, if perhaps too clever for its own good, Corigliano’s musical “rocket” – a scale or arpeggio getting faster and louder and a speciality of the eighteenth-century Mannheim Orchestra – journeys, after a section quoting from Stamitz to Wagner, to the heavens. Here “Twilight Zone” effects and a rather beautiful cello melody floats along before returning to earth with Wagner’s Mastersingers vying with trombone glissandos. A bright and breezy coda concludes a piece worth the occasional trip.

If the Brighton Festival Chorus was somewhat woolly in Chichester Psalms’s exuberant opening number, Slatkin’s reading, as attractively unforced here as it was gently devotional in more reflective passages, left a lasting impression, not least in the conciliatory closing pages – a real sense of communion. Less extreme than the composer’s own way, Slatkin got to the heart of the music with no lack of fervour, and 12-year-old Pablo Strong was innocently touching in his ’David’ solos.

Beneath the choir, as it were, there was some heartfelt playing from the strings and yet more lucid and glistening textures from the whole band in Paganini Rhapsody. This was a fascinating performance. Mikhail Pletnev did it his way, Slatkin was always with him, but rarely did they come together in any meaningful way. Pletnev’s dynamic lurches, note-picking, distended tenutos and mannered delivery shed little or no illumination on the music. Full of ideas Pletnev certainly is, and he delivered some fabulous pianism, but his disdain of the orchestra and egotistical hi-jacking of the solo part in a work needing a true relationship and musical integration left little room for manoeuvre.

A street scene in New York in the 1890s, such as Dvorak would have known; hand-coloured photograph (AKG London)What a glorious string section Slatkin has created – subtle, light-refracting, intrinsically intense and warm – and a focal point during this spontaneous ’New World’, one enjoying all manner of thoughtful observances. Especially memorable was the famous ’Largo’, the cor anglais melody sensitively shaped by Kathryn Meany, the movement discriminatingly maintained through its intimate course. The ’Scherzo’ – in which the composer overdoses on the triangle – was deliciously delicate, confirming the NSO’s chamber-music qualities (this is an orchestra where woodwind and string details fit together unprompted), and even the offending bit of metal seemed acceptable this time. The outer movements were no less impressive, the first pensive, robust (slightly too much maybe) and reflective, the last freewheeling and vital.

Quite why there were four trombones rather than Dvorak’s three I don’t know; there was slightly too much brass tone at times. The Barbican’s acoustic sounded wonderful at this concert – detailed and immediate – and if the platform’s extension possibly exacerbated Pletnev’s over-bearing contribution, this is the first Barbican concert I’ve heard since last summer’s refurbishment that disproves the theory that really quiet playing is not possible; there were some magical pianissimos in the ’New World’.

A rapt account of ’Touch her soft lips and part’ (for strings) from Walton’s music for Olivier’s “Henry V” was followed by a rousing version of Sousa’s The Liberty Bell. Slatkin, as genial and communicative as ever, got the crowd clapping – but surely this march is far too good for such intrusion?

Slatkin and the National Symphony are but a few steps from greatness; hopefully a way can be found to hear them more often than a visit every few years. Bon Voyage!

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