Music director Christoph Eschenbach began his Beethoven year with the National Symphony on Thursday — yet it was the Brahms that made it a special evening at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall.
Eschenbach was making his first appearance with the NSO since the season’s Opening Ball concert in September, and he kicked off the Beethoven year with the Sixth Symphony. Over the course of this season, he’ll follow with a concert performance of Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio”; the Leonore Overture No. 3 and the Seventh Symphony; and, under the batons of guest conductors, Symphonies No. 4 and 8.
Those Beethoven aficionados among us should have a happy year.
Thursday’s opening was Brahms Violin Concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist. From the full-throated glow of the brass in the opening moments of the first movement to the delicious dance that closed the last, it was a performance that put a lie to the idea that Brahms’s music is turgid and overblown.
Maybe it is under some conductors, but Eschenbach is not one of them. His reading never lingered to sentimentalize. Even the slow unfolding of the second movement Adagio moved with an irresistible sense of momentum, and the orchestra — caught up in the intimate communication between Eschenbach and Kavakos — responded as sensitively and subtly as I’ve heard it play.
Kavakos has, at his fingertips (or, perhaps more accurately, in his bow arm) both the silvery tone that many violinists prize, as well as a gutsy generous warmth where he needs it. His double stops are effortless, and his legato sounds as if he could draw it out forever. But most of all, he has the sense to use all this intelligently and to avoid anything showy.
Kavakos received a standing ovation (doesn’t everyone? — but he deserved it). He responded, as an encore, with an introspective movement from one of Bach’s unaccompanied Violin Sonatas.
The Beethoven was unexpectedly uneven. There were occasional glitches in the woodwinds that had played so splendidly in the Brahms — smudging in places where the strings played duple against triple rhythms — and a sense that, particularly in the last movement, the music moved aimlessly. Simultaneously, Eschenbach brought out wonderfully textured inner voices in the second movement.
Perhaps, after the Brahms, we expected too much.
The performance will be repeated tonight and Saturday.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.