Music review: A double delight from Anne-Sophie Mutter and the NSO

Concertos are generally presented as highlights of an orchestral concert — they add another dimension to the experience of hearing a large instrumental ensemble. And though it’s rare to hear two works involving a soloist on the same program, the National Symphony Orchestra has been spoiling its audiences lately.

Last month, the NSO juxtaposed Josh Bell in the Mendelssohn concerto with Matthias Goerne and Michelle DeYoung in Hindemith’s requiem. This past weekend, it offered another juxtaposition — this one unplanned.

On the schedule was Anne-Sophie Mutter, who was supposed to play the Dvorak concerto on Friday and Saturday, but was to open her run Thursday night with the concerto that Sebastian Currier wrote for her in 2011. The snow wiped out Thursday night’s concert, however, and so rather than abandon “her” concerto altogether, Mutter opted to play both concertos on a single program — in effect, turning the evening into a kind of Mutter recital. It was hardly a change that those in attendance minded: Told that they were going to get to hear a star play not one but two works, the audience members burst into applause. (The loss of the Martinu symphony that had to be sacrificed to make this change was met without a murmur.)

If you were going to plan an evening involving two concertos, you couldn’t do much better than this pairing. One was cool and thoughtful and unknown, calling on the soloist to do a lot of tough playing; the other was warm and romantic and familiar, and it let her and the orchestra sing to their heart’s content. They were introduced by a suite from Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” that, like the Currier, was new to the orchestra. Had Thursday’s concert gone on as planned with the Martinu, it would have been comprised entirely of music that the NSO had never before played.

The Currier piece, “Time Machines,” extends over a long span — some 30 minutes — in small increments. Each of its seven movements depicts a different kind of time, starting with “fragmented time,” expressed in busy, anxious, nervous scrubbing from the soloist, and continuing through “delay time,” “compressed time,” and so on.

Some of these movements involved slow, suspended washes of sound with little isolated incidents from the soloist and various other instruments — like black ink strokes on white ground. Others, like “compressed time,” returned to the more neurotic mode, though each was characterized slightly differently. The piece offers a lot to the ear without conveying a sense of ease. It moves fluidly, to be sure, but there is a sense of sound achieved in spite of resistance, phrases offered with a great deal of deliberateness, particularly in the final movement, “harmonic time.” It finally died away in a hum of sound, a simulacrum of decay — an orchestra playing so as to sound like what happens in sound’s wake.

Mutter played with intense conviction, inhabiting the rapid, nervous, neurotic passages and making the most of the slower phrases. You could say the piece was written to her strengths — strong sound, intricate playing, a sometimes slightly clinical approach — but it is not a piece about showcasing a virtuoso as much as it is one about exploring how to make use of one in tandem with a large orchestra. I am generally a fan of Currier’s music and found much to like in this piece, but it seemed to go on longer than needed to make its points.

The Dvorak, of course, is familiar — rich and lush and singing. If the conductor, Cristian Macelaru, established a link between the two, it was in the way he sometimes slowed down the orchestra in the Dvorak, so that the beauty of Mutter’s playing could be examined, slightly objectively, giving it a bit of air. He also found a through-line in the piece as a whole, playing the lively third movement as if it grew directly out of the Adagio second movement, a different expression of the same idea.

Macelaru, an associate conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra, was making his debut with the orchestra with this program, and if hearing two concertos offers a generous showcase for a soloist, it tends to rather play down the conductor. Still, he made the most of the opportunity. His one piece without Mutter was the suite that Vaclav Talich arranged from Janacek’s opera “The Cunning Little Vixen,” and it sounded very sweet and full, and brought across that opera’s particular warmth. If some of the effervescence of the original was lacking, the fault was more Talich’s than Macelaru’s. The orchestra played well for him, and the audience left happy — both those who wanted to hear a familiar concerto and those happy to see the orchestra, and a major performer, make sure the new piece got to be heard beside him.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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