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NSO program of Henze and Brahms is a feast for the ears from the Fatherland

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The National Symphony Orchestra just returned from a tour on which it was feted in Germany, particularly Hamburg, the sometime home of its music director, Christoph Eschenbach. On Thursday night, it appeared that the orchestra had brought Germany back home to Washington.

On the Kennedy Center podium was Christoph von Dohnanyi, also Hamburg-based, although best known in this country as the longtime conductor of the formidable Cleveland Orchestra. And the program, both in content and delivery, was eminently Teutonic.

It opened with a suite from the opera “Die Bassariden” that represented, almost incredibly, the first time that this ensemble had ever played music by the German composer Hans Werner Henze. Henze, who died last fall at 86, was a significant voice in the musical landscape, distinctive and independent of schools and movements. He wrote well and richly for traditional ensembles — 10 symphonies, a couple dozen operas, a host of ballet and concerti — in a language that wasn’t quite traditional but didn’t set out to break the mold and certainly didn’t fit most of his contemporaries’ definitions of avant-garde.

If the NSO came late to the table, it came honorably; Dohnanyi conducted the premiere of “Bassariden” in 1964, and he led the premiere of this suite from it with his North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2005. It is vivid, dense music, thick with percussion and woven through with lyricism, like the solo cello line that rises mellowly in the last movement — and Dohnanyi led it with efficient clarity. The applause for the unfamiliar work was more diffident than the occasion deserved.

The Mendelssohn violin concerto is doubtless an easier sell for many listeners, but it was actually the least compelling thing on the program. Dohnanyi is a brilliant technician who can sometimes tend to lead like a slightly overbearing schoolmaster, keeping everything firmly in check. Although his control brought some great things out of the orchestra in the Henze, his rapid tempi here seemed to hamper the soloist, Renaud Capucon, keeping his phrases in the second movement, for instance, from singing out.

Capucon, being French, was the only non-German element on the program, but he certainly approached this concerto with a kind of rigidity and earnestness, lots of vehement bow-strokes and a quasi-clinical sensibility. If ever a concerto calls for a smile, it’s this lyrical sunny thing, and although Capucon made some big, strong sounds, they seemed in places to veil the music’s light.

The orchestra, though, seems in generally good form, in the wake of its tour and in the process of various personnel changes that are having a fine effect. The opening of the second movement of the Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, the last piece on the program, represented some of the best horn-playing I’ve heard from this ensemble. This wasn’t heart-on-your-sleeve Brahms, but I found Dohnanyi’s straightforwardness a tonic in a complicated piece, and he and the orchestra found a shared energy that made for a generally rewarding, if intense, evening.

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

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