Christoph Eschenbach and National Symphony put new spin on familiar works

February 10, 2012

Neither of the pieces played Thursday night by the National Symphony Orchestra — Shostakovich’s first Violin Concerto and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony — has been underrepresented in recent years in Washington. Yet Music Director Christoph Eschenbach gave many reasons to listen to each one anew.

Compared with last week’s soloist-free program — which focused the ear on the sound of the NSO under Eschenbach’s baton — this week’s program was just as serious-minded, while centered on thoughts of anxiety and death. And perhaps to no one’s surprise, it played to a rather full Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Shostakovich had almost finished his first violin concerto in 1948, when he was again denounced by the Soviet cultural apparatus for formalism. He put away the score, later recalling exactly where he had left off amid a violin run of notes. Shostakovich returned to it only after the death of Stalin — for a 1955 premiere with David Oistrakh as soloist.

Scholar Laurel Fay has thoroughly documented not only the vitriol directed against Shostakovich, but also the composer’s careful acquiescence to his attackers, publicly admitting his faults and accepting his punishment. “I know that the Party is right,” Fay records the composer saying. “I know that the Party is showing concern for Soviet art and for me, a Soviet composer.” If there is heroism in Shostakovich’s interactions with the Soviet powers, rather than any hidden dissent in the pieces of this period, it is found in the wisdom to have known when to shut his mouth.

Julian Rachlin was the last violinist to play the work with the NSO, in 2008, but it is the sort of piece that played much better to the strengths of this week’s soloist, the eclectic Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. The piece is a sort of suite with four unusual movements of different characters, none traditionally associated with the concerto. Many violinists can get the virtuosic parts right — some with even more thrill than Salerno-Sonnenberg — but few can sustain interest over the somber first-movement nocturne as well as she. Music infused with melancholy, it may be bitter or just rueful — with harp, celesta and tam-tam giving the violin’s lonely monologue an exotic, spectral quality.

Salerno-Sonnenberg gave each halting phrase its own pace and freedom, with an evanescent tone that was radiant in piano passages but turned a little strident and occasionally off-color in intonation high on the E-string and at full volume.

Eschenbach led the orchestra ably, giving plenty of boisterous oomph to the crazy galop sections of the scherzo and the wild paroxysms of the finale, introduced by Salerno-Sonnenberg’s almost disembodied version of the long, ruminative cadenza. It added up to something far more satisfying than how I recall her performance of the same work in 2008 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

The NSO had played Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony more recently, in 2009 under Herbert Blomstedt. But Eschenbach made the first significant achievement of his first year here with the Austrian composer’s Sixth Symphony in 2010.

Bruckner completed only the first three movements, dedicating the work “Dem lieben Gott” (“To dear God”) with a plan, never completed, to end the piece with a monumental fugue. Eschenbach approached it with an agitation that recalled the more active Sixth Symphony, making for a slightly jagged first movement that one wished could have been more solemn but also made for a vigorous and imperious scherzo.

All was overlooked because of the third movement — grand, ceremonial, full of loamy richness from those enigmatic opening bars and the chromatic, almost keyless G-string melody in the violin section.

This passage has eluded almost every attempt to understand it, provoking scholar Derrick Puffett to write, for example: “I decided I couldn’t analyze the Adagio from a Schenkerian perspective because I couldn’t analyze the first eight bars.”

Nothing here felt rushed, revealing a grandeur, a view toward the infinite that suited the movement marked by Bruckner’s “Abschied vom Leben” (“Life’s Farewell”). Attempts have been made here and there to craft a fourth movement in accordance with Bruckner’s sketches, including a new one revised in 2010 that was played this week by the Berlin Philharmonic.

Hearing the piece, the only possible solution is to leave it just when Bruckner did and ponder the eternal vistas at which it seems to hint.

This concert will be repeated Friday and Saturday night.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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