National Symphony with Fischer and Lendvay: Missing strings, but still diverting

After the rigors and longueurs of Messiaen and Zemlinsky, National Symphony Orchestra patrons have been given a break — a wholly traditional program, delivered with an entertaining twist.

Former NSO principal conductor Ivan Fischer returned with a Rossini overture, Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 and the Paganini Concerto featuring violinist Jozsef Lendvay Jr. Since it is Lendvay whom everyone will be talking about, let’s get to him first. The main question after Lendvay’s performance is: Is this a put-on? This quirky Hungarian artist with a cave man’s mane boasts an amazingly lithe, clean bow arm (though he alters some passages to avoid doing a flying staccato) and a macho, take-no-prisoners virtuosity that sets him apart.

What also sets him apart is his insouciant, jazzlike phrasing — no coherent lines, everything with a wink or a shimmy or a comical expression.With his anything-goes rubato, Lendvay kept Fischer on tenterhooks; watching the poor guy trying to fit the orchestra into some of Lendvay’s more outrageous perorations was like watching a catcher desperately trying to anticipate Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckle ball.

This cheesy concerto is hard to take seriously as music. But I couldn’t help wonder whether the clowning showmanship Thursday night was intended as a sort of mash-up parody of gypsy fiddlers and pompous classical virtuosos or whether this was just a very strange violinist having fun.

He didn’t have much fun in the Rondo’s artificial harmonics, which were dreadful. And for all his flashiness, his intonation is well below an international standard. I cannot imagine a greater contrast between this performance and the apollonian one the NSO gave three years ago with Hilary Hahn.

Still, the audience ate it up, and four raucous curtain calls were rewarded with Paganini’s “Nel cor piu non mi sento” — well, with the beginning and the ending of it, anyway.

Although it is one of the great symphonies in the repertoire, Schumann’s “Rhenish” has mostly eluded the NSO. They played it for the first time in 1974 and have not done it since 1999. This can bring freshness, but it can also bring caution.

I have generally enjoyed Fischer’s work in the classics, but here there was a lot of music missing. The NSO let a lot of string players take the week off, and everything was wind- and brass-heavy. It is always hard to keep the strings in balance in that hall, but when there weren’t enough of them to begin with, the expressive palette is further limited.

The larger problem was in the shaping of lines; Schumann’s music requires a sense of deep commitment to each elusive phrase, every detail contributing toward either tension or release. Fischer was trying, but the rhythms in the outer movements lacked spring and bounce, many phrases needed more rhetorical force and the almost unbearable tension of the “Feierlich” movement often sagged.

I have to wonder whether the musicians found it hard to concentrate after the zaniness of the concerto. But there was certainly some wonderful playing here and there. The horns, in particular, covered themselves in glory, and the oboist offered some lovely, arching solos. Had the strings been at full strength, perhaps everything would have sounded fine.

The opening Rossini overture, “La gazza ladra,” was a little straight-faced, but it is hard to mess up such dazzling music. The NSO is in good shape, and all in all, it was a diverting evening.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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