Pereira shines in belated Mozart concerto premiere with NSO

Wed Jun 19, 2019 at 11:25 am

Abel Pereira performed Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 with the National Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Scott Suchman

The National Symphony Orchestra delivered the second installment of its Mozart Forever mini-festival Tuesday night. As in the first program over the weekend, French conductor Nathalie Stutzmann led confident, clearly defined renditions of two symphonies, an overture, and a concerto. Unfortunately, the sameness of the programming made more apparent the lack of variety and originality in her Mozart interpretations.

Most of the music on this concert is regular fare for the NSO, with one notable exception. This was the ensemble’s first performance of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4, and principal horn player Abel Pereira gave a blockbuster rendition of the solo part. His playing was consistently elegant, with a polished legato sheen, graceful phrasing, and delicate dynamic control in music that put him in a better light than his last appearance as a concerto soloist a year ago.

Pereira even wrote his own cadenzas, beginning with an extended one in the first movement, featuring virtuosic shifts of register that explored lower and lower notes. At the end of this lesser-explored side of the instrument’s range were two extremely deep notes that almost did not register as pitches, a somewhat jarring moment. The soloist offered a meltingly beautiful Romanza, supremely expressive and delicately balanced.

The finale of this concerto is likely the most familiar to listeners, a spirited rondo of crisply articulated hunting-horn motifs cascading up and down the instrument’s range. To each of Pereira’s statements of the theme, his two horn colleagues in the orchestra responded boisterously in turn. Pereira’s cadenza in this movement was much shorter but equally brilliant, this time lifting upward into the instrument’s upper range for a final flourish.

Sadly Stutzmann’s conducting of that finale left much to be desired, as she was never able to get the NSO on exactly the same rhythmic footing as her soloist. In the three other pieces, for a larger ensemble with about forty string players, she was similarly inconsistent.

Extremes of tempo were common, as in the glacially slow opening section of the Overture to Don Giovanni, distinguished by little else. Absurdly exaggerated ritardandi also appeared at the end of many movements, generally after little other inflection had been applied throughout the piece, like an afterthought.

Symphony No. 25 and Symphony No. 40, both in the key of G minor, can hardly be anything but pleasing in almost any performance. In the earlier symphony the first movement’s tempo was precipitous, although it slowed down noticeably over the course of the exposition, only to be sped up again. In the slow movement the musicians leaned on two- and three-note motifs like groans, down to the last one drawn out laboriously in the basses and bassoons.

The four horns were insistent and gruff in tone, with a few misses in the high range but plenty of energy. Stutzmann went extremely fast in the Menuetto, slowing down to what seemed a more apt tempo in the Trio, featuring excellent interplay from oboes, bassoons, and horns. The Finale was jaunty in pace, but with some rapid runs jumbled in execution.

By contrast the first movement of the Symphony No. 40 was paced just right, with lovely details from the horns and woodwinds, especially the anxious little chirps of the clarinets and bassoons in the closing theme. The second movement had the most interesting musical ideas, with Stutzmann shaping each motif with different articulation and some enveloping soft moments.

The Menuetto was again over the top, in terms of both rapid tempo and soupy crescendos capped by hammered accents. Stutzmann drew attention to the midpoint of the active Finale by drawing out the sinuous unison theme, almost grinding the piece to a halt. The fast tempo and rousing horn calls gave some force to the concert’s conclusion, but it was not enough to lift the evening from merely good to great, Abel Pereira’s playing apart.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Wednesday.; 202-467-4600

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