Noseda, NSO in brilliant performance of Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2

Violinist James Ehnes shines in light and lively performance of Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2. Plus, a Thursday evening Organ Postlude recital tops the bill.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda. (Courtesy of Mr. Noseda's website)

WASHINGTON, November 13, 2015 – This week’s regular season concert by the National Symphony Orchestra added a touch of newness to a pair of popular Russian compositions. Under the baton of Italian guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda, the orchestra performed (for the very first time) Alfredo Casella’s “Elegia Eroica,” Rachmaninoff’s brooding “Symphony No. 2,” and Prokofiev’s “Violin Concerto No. 2, with guest violinist James Ehnes.

Leading off the evening was the relatively unknown “Elegia Eroica” by the relatively unknown 20th century Italian composer Alfredo Casella. A rather biting, bitter piece of under 15 minutes, the “Elegia” is, in a way, the composer’s funeral march in commemoration of World War I. Although not atonal, this is rather nasty music until about 2/3 of the way through when the music fades into a quiet and touching elegy for a dead friend.

This was the NSO’s first performance of this work, written by a composer whose elusive politics and lengthy support for Mussolini has often caused ensembles to look away from his considerable oeuvre. I confess to being completely unfamiliar with his work, which makes it a little difficult for me to evaluate this performance, except to say that it was crisply executed. As to the music itself, I found its lugubriousness a bit much.

Violinist James Ehnes. (Credit: Ben Ealovega)
Violinist James Ehnes. (Credit: Ben Ealovega)

The remaining works were considerably more palatable, in fact, marvelously so. The Prokofiev Concerto No. 2 for violin and orchestra is in some ways a bit odd, as one can feel this composer warring with his generally modernist personality in a work he must have hoped would not incur the wrath of the totalitarian Soviet Stalinist monster.

What comes out, however, is a remarkably light and reasonably airy concerto, whose true Prokofiev quirkiness bursts out more strongly in the jagged but catchy playfulness of the finale.

The NSO for its part, under Mr. Noseda’s baton, gave an appropriately airy reading of this score, which proved the perfect match for the deceptively simple technique of the evening’s guest violin soloist, James Ehnes. Mr. Ehnes took Prokofiev in stride, with a beautiful legato approach seasoned by a brisk staccato touch necessitated particularly in the third movement when Prokofiev’s edgier self reasserts itself.

But in all candor, the most pleasant surprise of the evening was an absolutely gorgeous, lavish performance of Rachmaninoff’s grand, sweepingly Romantic Second Symphony.

Mr. Noseda seemed to be truly in his element here, leading the orchestra with discipline and precision while at the same time bringing out the lushness and longing in this score that so many orchestras and conductors manage to miss.

This was, flat out, probably one of the finest performances of this symphony I’ve ever had the privilege to hear. The orchestral sound was flawless, the ensembles were perfectly blended, and the tempos were perfectly calibrated to suit the many and varying moods of this Russian masterwork. There’s no point in continuing to list superlatives here. Suffice it to say that Thursday evening’s audience was privileged to hear a great performance of this work, and Saturday evening’s audience will likely agree.

Rating: *** ½ (3 ½ out of 4 stars)

Remaining Regular Program Performance date: Thursday’s Organ Postlude does not repeat, but the NSO’s regular concert program repeats Saturday evening, November 14 at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Tickets: Tickets are priced from $15-89 for this final performance. For tickets and information, visit the NSO’s page on the Kennedy Center website, or call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324 (Toll-free).

Organ Postlude: Thursday’s edition of the NSO’s “Organ Postlude” series featured area organist Russell Weismann on the Rubenstein Family Organ performing a varied program featuring works by contemporary English composer Alec Wynton (1921-2007), J.S. Bach, and French organist-composer Charles Marie Wider.

Wynton’s “Fanfare,” as Mr. Weismann explained beforehand, was a short, festive composition written to be performed in New York’s well known and rather gigantic Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The piece was chosen not only for its brightness and flashiness, but also to provide an example of this organ’s impressive pipes, particularly those that represented the high brass trumpets and the much lower tuba stops, and Mr. Weismann gave an energetic performance that did not disappoint.

The next work, Bach’s vigorous Prelude and Fugue in E-minor (BWV 548) proved a bit understated and tentative in this performance. It’s a difficult work, and Mr. Weismann has clearly mastered it. But its final, complex fugue sometimes seemed less than decisive.

The recital closed with a performance of two movements taken from Widow’s Organ Symphony No. 6. While its “Toccata” finale is one of the most famous works in the entire organ repertoire, the recitalist’s decision to present instead the highly chromatic “Adagio” and the thunderous opening “Allegro” was a good one.

Both are wondrous pieces and excellent representatives from the late Romantic era during which French organists almost singlehandedly re-invented the organ as a modern and even secular instrument capable of great originality and power. Mr. Weismann gave a fluid, empathetic reading to the tricky yet achingly Romantic “Adagio” before ripping with gusto into Widow’s massive, almost bombastic “Allegro.”

The latter piece, which concluded this performance, proved a fine opportunity to allow the Kennedy Center’s wonderful new instrument to shine in all its French-style symphonic glory. Mr. Weismann’s performance was showy, exciting and yet very musical over all. Best of all, he was able to incorporate Widor’s rapid pedal work fluidly into the fabric of his performance, bringing this movement to the kind of brilliant conclusion most organ fans expect from a truly Royal Instrument.

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