Graf and the NSO get the most of out two little-known works

December 6, 2012

This week’s National Symphony Orchestra program offers a fine guest conductor, a marquee soloist and two almost-unknown pieces that deserve more exposure.

Hans Graf, a well-regarded Austrian maestro who succeeded Christoph Eschenbach as music director of the Houston Symphony, programmed two works that the NSO hasn’t played in more than 40 years: the Lutoslawski “Musique funèbre” and the Tchaikovsky Third Symphony.

Graf’s podium manner is “workmanlike” in the best sense: Eschewing sexiness and grandstanding, he confines his gestures to those that help the musicians play with confidence. His sense of security transmits to the musicians, and the NSO responded to the guest conductor with relaxed but committed playing. At Thursday evening’s performance, I didn’t notice a single bobbled note from the winds — and ensemble, particularly at tempo transitions, was impressive.

Lutoslawski’s work, for strings only, from the mid-1950s, is a homage to Bartok that, like most homages, falls a little short of its honoree. The highly developed technique was similar — using serialism, free counterpoint and isorhythmic devices (out-of-phase repetitions of rhythms and pitch-groups) — but the results lacked the emotional force of Bartok.

Still, “Musique funèbre” offers a kind of sere beauty, an unquiet elegy for one of the century’s great masters. The intonation among the low strings was not flawless in the beginning, but Graf gave the piece shape and urgency. Too many string orchestras ignore this fine addition to the repertoire.

Pianist Yuja Wang then delivered the Chopin Concerto in E-minor with cool, nonchalant perfection. Dispatching the ferociously difficult passage-work as you or I might drum our fingers idly on a table, she gave little hint of what the piece meant to her, or what corner of the universe it revealed. Her tone either whispered or roared, but it rarely sang. The bouncy theme of the Rondo came off as impatient; it carried no reference to anything ethnic or bumptious.

(In contrast to some of her concert outfits that have drawn notoriety, she performed in a flaming-red but relatively demure gown.)

One cannot but be amazed at the clarity of her finger-work, but I know nothing more about her than I did before this performance. She needs to find a way to connect herself more to the music.

The shorthand knock on Tchaikovsky’s symphonies is the same as for Dvorak’s and Bruckner’s: The last three are the only ones worth hearing. That is unfair, of course, particularly for Tchaikovsky, whose first two symphonies were later extensively revised. But it is true that his Fourth Symphony did represent a newfound mastery of length and form that he was still developing in its predecessor.

The Third (subtitled the “Polish”) could do with some editing, the sequences often going on too long. But the melodic material is wonderful, and the piece is painted on a wide, lush canvas.

Graf did his best to shape the repetitive passages and, again, got the players to dig into this unfamiliar music with confidence. One could imagine someone else scaling higher emotional heights, but give me solid, dependable musicianship over glitz and flash any day.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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