Storgårds brings Silvestrov discovery, revelatory Tchaikovsky to NSO

Thu Oct 04, 2018 at 11:54 pm

John Storgårds conducted the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

Emanuel Ax has enjoyed a sort of Indian summer in his solo appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra over the last decade. The American pianist is a veteran musician long past the need to impress with speed or daring. Instead he approached Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 with reflection and refinement Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, which is just what this music needed.

John Storgårds, last with the NSO in 2013, and Ax settled into a graceful Allegro tempo for the first movement. The smaller number of strings and complement of horns and winds created a cushioned canvas of sound for Ax, who painted on it with gentle gestures. With total agreement of pacing between soloist and ensemble the genteel tempo remained constant even as the main theme returned, a sign of the unruffled ease on stage. Ax handled Mozart’s cadenzas with similar understated elegance.

Emanuel Ax. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Storgårds began the slow movement too lugubriously, an Andante mired in molasses but also luxuriating in its plaintive melody. Ax made a judicious course correction when the piano entered, taking over that forlorn, delicate tune with an unaffected, utterly natural touch. The bouncy theme and variations of the finale flowed with polished geniality. Mozart, a bird-lover, wrote that he had trained a beloved pet starling to sing this movement’s perky main theme, permeating the piece with sunny warmth. Ax offered as encore a dreamy rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in F-Sharp Major, Op. 15, No. 2.

Storgårds, who often opens concerts with something unexpected and modern, set the stage for Mozart perfectly with the NSO’s first-ever performance of Valentin Silvestrov’s The Messenger. The Ukrainian composer wove together allusions to Mozart without apparently quoting him directly in this hypnotic work, dedicated to the composer’s wife, who had died around the time he completed this piece.

Fragmented motifs from NSO pianist Lambert Orkis ricocheted through the small string ensemble, seeming to get caught and frozen in nostalgic clusters, as if we were hearing a garden concert echoing distantly across a mist-covered lake. (A part for synthesizer, which creates a sound like the messenger’s rushing wings, was omitted in this performance.)

The Finnish conductor somehow topped this fine first half with an outstanding rendition of the overfamiliar Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky. He approached the piece with a confident hand, transferring that confidence to the bleak opening in the clarinet, supported by darkened low strings, and using clear articulation to differentiate motifs from one another. Powerful trombones and tuba crowned an impressive wave of growing sound, and plenty of rubato oiled the brighter second theme, both slowing and speeding up for maximum flexibility.

The start of the second movement, just low string chords in long notes, was shaped expressively, welcoming the tender solo by principal horn Abel Pereira. Later when the cellos and especially the violins took up that anguished theme, Storgårds did not allow it to wallow or linger, bringing out countermelodies in the winds. The waltzes of the third movement unspooled with rhythmic verve, enlivened by crisply defined hemiolas.

In some ways this symphony often might be improved by omitting its bombastic finale, at least the way it is often played. Storgårds managed to make it convincing here, going for speed and intensity rather than sheer volume. The movement was so irascible, so voluble that the coda seemed not pompous and over the top but like a valedictory celebration. If you are not a believer in Tchaikovsky, this performance could make you one.

The program will be repeated 11:30 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.; 202-467-4600

2 Responses to “Storgårds brings Silvestrov discovery, revelatory Tchaikovsky to NSO”

  1. Posted Oct 05, 2018 at 10:38 am by karen

    We loved Valentin Silvestrov’s The Messenger. I wish the NSO would open more concerts with lesser known composers. We attended last nights concert with two 19yr olds…and they also really enjoyed the evening. makes us hopeful.

  2. Posted Oct 07, 2018 at 2:27 pm by B.

    I would love to confirm Emanuel Ax’ encore at the Saturday performance. I had a feeling it was one of Chopin’s Polonaises (?)

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