NSO’s Heavy Classix: Mahler songs, Bruckner symphony on tap

Led by Christoph Eschenbach, an uneven Thursday evening NSO concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall pitted a wobbly performance of Mahler songs, (expertly sung by contralto Nathalie Stutzmann), against a thrilling Bruckner 4th Symphony. A study in contrasts.

French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann. (Photo credit: Simon Fowler)

WASHINGTON, June 10, 2016 – Thursday evening’s Mahler-Bruckner concert by the National Symphony Orchestra was an oddly mixed bag. This series concert, with Christoph Eschenbach at the orchestra helm, featured only two works, the relatively short and not-too-well-known “Rückert-Lieder” of Gustav Mahler, which featured contralto Nathalie Stutzmann as soloist; and Anton Bruckner’s marvelous Symphony No. 4 (“Romantic”). The latter work was a notable success. The Mahler, less so.

Mahler’s “Rückert-Lieder” is, roughly speaking, a grab bag of the composer’s songs that don’t really amount to a full fledged “song cycle.” That doesn’t mean these songs should be neglected. But they don’t really present a story arc.

Scored for an odd batch of instruments, ranging from a harp to an unusually prominent contrabassoon (here, a contra-forte) and ultimately to the expected complement of strings, these songs are typically sung by a baritone or a contralto, with this weekend’s performance being sung by Ms. Stutzmann in an articulate and at times artfully understated performance.

The problem here was not with the material—which does not really show Mahler at his best—but with the seemingly haphazard nature of the performance itself. Mahler’s unusual orchestral colorations often seemed muddy and occasionally too loud, taking Ms. Stutzmann out of the action on occasion.

Tempos seemed sloppy or even lackadaisical at times, and the whole set of mostly romantic or upbeat songs at times seemed funereal, an impression perhaps unintentionally enhanced by the fact that the soloist was attired in pretty much the exact short-jacketed all-black outfit Maestro Eschenbach has long favored on the podium. The NSO has, by and large, been at the top of its game in concerts this reviewer has been able to attend. But that was not the case for these Mahler songs, at least during Thursday evening’s performance.

Happily, the Bruckner 4th was a considerably more rewarding experience, and was clearly the main course on Thursday evening’s menu. One of Bruckner’s shorter symphonies and said to be his most popular, it’s easy to see why, particularly after a performance as rousing as the one enjoyed by Thursday’s audience.

Bruckner fans know all about the legendarily self-effacing personality of this symphonic genius, who was usually so uncertain of himself and so sensitive to criticism that he endlessly revised most of his symphonic output, posthumously driving musicologists nuts as they tried to figure out which version of which symphony was closest to the composer’s “original intentions.”

The history of Bruckner’s 4th is a case in point. Existing in three known versions, Bruckner’s 4th first forces any conductor to choose which one he’s going to perform, since all three have significant differences. Maestro Eschenbach chose Version Number 2, the composer’s first revision of his initial score over the probably over-corrected and over-revised final version, a good choice, we think.

The orchestra’s fine performance of this Bruckner symphony pretty much redeemed the evening’s weak first stanza. Maestro Eschenbach is quite familiar with the work and enthusiastic about the composer’s work in general, having made a highly respected recording of Bruckner’s 6th some years back with the London Philharmonic. He clearly brought that enthusiasm to Thursday’s performance of the 4th, along with a fairly brisk approach to this work’s distinctive, martial Scherzo, which, over all, I rather liked.

The best part of this performance was the outstanding work by the NSO’s brass section, which, as it has so often this season, resembled at its best the brilliant, triumphal sound of the Cleveland Orchestra’s brass back in the era of the legendary George Szell, which I still regard as the gold standard. NSO’s brass was crisp and precise in virtually every entrance—and there are a lot of such entrances in this symphony. The fact that they occasionally drowned out the strings didn’t bother me a whole lot simply because they sounded so good.

The strings did get a chance to shine, however, in Bruckner’s romantic, mood altering slow movement, and they made the most of this opportunity before the brass reappeared and whisked us off to the Wagnerian mountaintops in Bruckner’s brilliant yet maddening final movement, which seems to contain a record number of the composer’s signature device, an ever-building series of brilliant but false climaxes before the final curtain descended on this wonderful performance.

Prior to the Bruckner, Loren Kitt, the orchestra’s retiring principal clarinetist was honored briefly for his 46 years (!), which began so long ago that I was still an undergraduate here at Georgetown University. The audience gave Mr. Kitt a big round of applause, not only honoring his service but also likely expressing some amazement that in this day and age, anyone could enjoy such a lengthy tenure with a single organization doing something that he obviously loves.

Rating: ***1/2 (Three and one-half out of four stars)


This series concert repeats Friday and Saturday evenings at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Curtain: 8 p.m.

NSO ticket prices generally range from $15-89. 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.

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