A Russian night of magic and fantasy from Lintu, NSO

Thu Feb 01, 2018 at 11:53 pm

Hannu Lintu conducted the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at the Kennedy Center.

This must be the week for resurrecting forgotten ballet scores. With Richard Strauss’s Schlagobers on the Opera House stage next door, thanks to the visiting American Ballet Theatre, the National Symphony Orchestra put on its own show Thursday night. For the first time since 1947, it performed the complete score of Stravinsky’s Le baiser de la fée, a ravishing piece of music that a choreographer like Alexei Ratmansky should get to know.

Finnish guest conductor Hannu Lintu, last on the NSO podium in 2012, actually conducted the Divertimento arrangement of the piece with the NSO in 2009. Composing the piece for the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death, Stravinsky wove scraps of Tchaikovsky melodies, drawn from piano pieces and songs, into a quilt at once an ingenious evocation of Tchaikovsky and quintessentially Stravinsky.

Lintu has embraced the piece, which tells a story drawn from Hans Christian Andersen’s short story Isjomfruen (The Ice-Maiden). The conductor elicited an astounding range of colors from the NSO, honing balances so that hushed solos from oboe and flute in the opening section shimmered softly. Principal horn player Abel Pereira worked wonders on his stratospheric solo part, followed by lush sounds from the quartet of string principals.

In the scenes for the Swiss villagers, elements of the raucous Shrovetide Fair of Petrushka came to the fore, with circus-like sonorities evoking calliope and organ-grinder. Lintu’s confidence negotiating the shifts of downbeat in these multi-metric sections put the orchestra completely at ease with clear gestures.

After an antic waltz, featuring more stupendous horn playing, the pas de deux for the lovers featured a gentle serenade for clarinet, solo cello, and the low strings of the harp (which sounded almost like a guitar in that range). All of the vignettes seemed perfectly in place, with a charming flute cadenza leading into a goofy cakewalk conclusion, something like a manic chase sequence in a Blake Edwards movie. 

Kirill Gerstein. Photo: Marco Borggreve

The Stravinsky easily outshone the latest performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Phenomenal virtuoso Kirill Gerstein, heard in Washington in a solo recital of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes last year, did his best to make this familiar piece unpredictable in his NSO debut. In the first movement, impeccably clear fingerwork distinguished the first theme, and a restless rubato kept the famous second theme from turning lachrymose. Gerstein’s big, bruising tone at the keyboard was matched by excellent accompanying by Lintu, guiding the NSO with a sure hand.

Gerstein returned the favor in the impetuous, even restless second movement, accompanying the flute and clarinet solos and sensitively weaving his own countermelodies into the texture. With so much energy devoted to moving the piece forward, rather than holding it back in tempo, the return of the slow theme after the cadenza, now allowed to drift just slightly in a momentary whiff of nostalgia, was an opulent moment.

Lintu and Gerstein never quite came to an agreement on a comfortable pacing for the third movement, and the fast sections raced a little too far ahead for comfort. Gerstein managed to get all the notes in, but the effect was harried rather than being light and playful. The slower passages, with that indelible tune introduced by the viola section, were the highlight of the piece; Gerstein produced prodigious force and volume in the ultimate drive of the finale. Sadly, although called out for an extra ovation, he declined to play an encore.

Since Stravinsky had tried to out-Tchaikovsky Tchaikovsky with Le baiser de la fée, it made sense to have a Tchaikovsky piece open the concert. The Tempest, also featuring a fairy and magic spells, was a logical choice, especially since the NSO had not played it since 1974. 

There was some tentative horn playing, but the storm scene went with impressive force and velocity, followed by warm cellos and soaring violins on the love theme for Ferdinand and Miranda.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. kennedy-center.org; 202-467-4600.


One Response to “A Russian night of magic and fantasy from Lintu, NSO”

  1. Posted Feb 02, 2018 at 5:10 pm by Marina harss

    Alexei Ratmansky has made 2 Ballets to the score of Baiser De la Fee, the latest just last year for Miami City Ballet!

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