This week’s National Symphony Orchestra program is a showcase for the many fine players sprinkled throughout the ensemble. Principal cellist David Hardy took center stage for Henri Dutilleux’s “Tout un monde lointain,” principal oboist Nicholas Stovall anchored a highly expressive performance of Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” and smaller solos for violin, viola and cello dotted the Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 2.
The NSO is rightly proud of its marquee players, even though the tutti can still sound fuzzy at times, as it did Thursday evening. Matthew Halls, who led a “Messiah” here a few seasons ago, is a good but not great conductor. Slow music, in particular, tends to wander in his hands, though the energy he puts out elsewhere is impressive. He led the long, rarely heard Vaughan Williams symphony without a score and with complete security. There just isn’t a strong profile yet.
That said, it was a well-played and often enjoyable program, starting most strongly with the Ravel, a virtual mini-concerto for woodwinds. Stovall’s supple tone, unstressed even in the very highest register, was the capstone of an excellent ensemble all around. There were flashes of unexpected instrumental color and accents — even the bassoons came through clearly — and Halls paced things well. The only quibble would be the balance; the strings are secondary in the piece, often muted, and were reduced in number for this performance. There was no need for the winds to project so much; soft playing is beautiful, too.
Dutilleux died last month at 97, so this performance was well-timed. And it was as masterful as anyone could want. Hardy learned the piece — a tone-poem more than a concerto — from Rostropovich, for whom it was written, and has been playing it for decades. His command of the work was world-class. The NSO did it numerous times with Rostropovich himself, so even though Halls was the newcomer to the piece, the performance had a security that one seldom hears in difficult modern scores. Only in the final movement, “Hymne,” did his unfamiliarity come through, as Halls did nothing while the orchestra drowned out Hardy repeatedly.
Many otherwise knowledgeable music lovers are surprised to learn that Vaughan Williams wrote any symphonies, let alone that he wrote nine. His symphonies have not held their place in the repertoire outside Britain, even though they are bustling, vibrant and easy to listen to. But perhaps too easy. Williams relies heavily on such formulaic harmonic devices as whole-tone and pentatonic scales; with those, music can be spun out by the bolt, rather than the much more difficult work of constructing architecture through functional harmony and key relationships. But that frees up the composer to focus on surface drama and the sorts of musical gestures that another Williams — John — later employed to immense commercial success. The trouble with all of this is that little of it sticks in the head afterward.
Still, Williams’s Symphony No. 2 is not unworthy of hearing; its bumptious folk songs, stirring British hymns and twee pastorals do paint a pleasant enough portrait of Edwardian culture. Halls clearly was enchanted with the playing (he still mostly works with second-tier groups), and the performance, if not the last word in clarity, was affectionate and engaging.
Battey is a freelance writer.