National Symphony Orchestra’s all-German program glides from pretty to powerful

Come for the Beethoven, stay for the Blacher.

It’s unusual advice for an orchestral audience, many of whom might ask, “And who is Blacher, anyway?” (Boris Blacher was a 20th-century German composer.) But it certainly would have been the right tip for the National Symphony Orchestra concert Thursday night — even if a number of people took off at intermission, after the Beethoven was over.

(Jiri Hronik) - Arabella Steinbacher.

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The Beethoven was the Beethoven violin concerto, which I have to say upfront is one of my favorite things in the entire world, so I’m not entirely sure I can write about it objectively. It opened the evening, which, though not an unprecedented decision, still felt like serving the main course first. Dramaturgically, it turned out to make sense in the context of the all-German program: Marek Janowski, the conductor, kept the orchestra reined in (and even slightly phlegmatic) for this classical work so that he could pull out the stops on the big late- and post-romantic pieces in the second half. But it felt slightly dislocating nonetheless — as if the evening started over again after intermission with the delicious squiggly runs that Blacher pulled out of the winds in his “Orchestral Variations on a Theme by Paganini.”

I might have had a different take had the Beethoven not felt slightly like a warm-up. It marked the official NSO/Kennedy Center debut of the soloist Arabella Steinbacher, who has appeared in the D.C. area a number of times, and who also joined the NSO’s recent European tour as a soloist when Julia Fischer had to pull out on fairly short notice.

There’s no question that Steinbacher acquitted herself beautifully. She has a beautiful singing tone and some fire that stood her well in, particularly, the final movement, which started with a deep ochre bite and culminated in a wonderfully ferocious cadenza.

I missed the ferocity, though, in the first movement. Steinbacher seemed to slam on the brakes at some of her key entrances, starting with the soaring opening one, introducing just enough rubato to slow the overall momentum. And a certain jerkiness of phrasing tended to sell her glorious lines short, as did the bumpy shifts out of her trills.

Nitpicking? I’d rather hear her play this than a number of other violinists, and the audience was thrilled. She rewarded the ovation with an encore, a Recitativo and Scherzo by Fritz Kreisler that seemed a continuation of everything I liked about her in the third movement. She seemed more vivid, more awake.

So, too, in the second half, did Janowski and the orchestra.

The mere prospect of an unfamiliar “contemporary” piece (the Blacher was written in 1947) might have driven people away, but from the work’s dynamite opening — a solo violin overtaken by the gradually accelerating whoosh of a full orchestra, a transition Janowski and the NSO made worthy of Ravel — these “Variations” demonstrated the reason that so many 20th-century conductors were fond of them. Blacher certainly knew how an orchestra works; he reached all over it and pulled out little tendrils of sound that he sent scooting up and down the staff like gummy worms, producing the closest effect to an actual aural tickle that I’ve heard.

If the Beethoven seemed a little subdued, that certainly wasn’t a problem in either the Blacher or the final work on the program, Strauss’s “Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration),” a 24-minute tone poem about the end of someone’s life.

Janowski is clearly a big-orchestra guy. He seemed to relish reaching in and getting all of the parts of the ensemble going and really kneading the sound. He’s not a heart-on-the-sleeve type; even in “Death and Transfiguration,” he was more about sound than about pathos. Indeed, he got so involved with the inner voices that one of the big beautiful melodic themes got submerged in the melange, as if everyone was exulting in sound rather than the more obvious narrative (suffering, flashback, final apotheosis).

But that’s a rather impressionistic description of a technically adroit conductor who’s quite specific about what he wants — rejiggering the NSO’s seating, for instance, so that first and second violins were together, with the cellos separating them from the violas. (Christoph Eschenbach usually places the first and second violinists antiphonally at either side of him.)

These days, the NSO has the power to support him. The orchestra has the winds to do credit to the Blacher — and, in concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef — who had moments to shine in both the Blacher and the Strauss — it has a violinist who one would like to hear play the Beethoven concerto herself.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

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