NSO program has British flavor

April 20, 2012

The National Symphony Orchestra has so far followed a busy March — given Christoph Eschenbach’s major festival of Austrian, Hungarian and Czech music — with a less hectic April. The musicians haven’t had much chance to rest, though, with guest conductor Andrew Litton leading a full program with a decidedly British flavor.

A praiseworthy trend in music selection continued Thursday night at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall: Two of the pieces had not been heard from the NSO since the 1990s, and one was given its NSO debut.

The new piece was Frank Bridge’s “The Sea” from 1911 — a charming alternative to such other British marine depictions as Britten’s “Sea Interludes” or Vaughan Williams’s “Sea Symphony.” Bridge used evocative extended harmonies reminiscent of Debussy (which have now made their way into American film-score composition) to create a majestic vista of the ocean in the first movement (“Seascape”), which Litton and the musicians punctuated with vivid dynamic swells.

The second movement’s fizzy chromatic bubblings in the woodwinds corresponded to the composer’s description of “froth among the low-lying rocks and pools on the shore,” while a silvery, coruscated flute solo over shimmering string chords and harp twinkles reflected the moonlight of the night sea in the third part. Blaring brass and percussion crashes added to the roiling of the storm in the fourth movement. Litton’s meticulous care for rhythmic and tempo transitions joined the different sections together well. Burbles of contraforte and English horn sounded like the last swirl of the deep before the first movement’s grand theme returned.

Another British composer, Edward Elgar, was featured in the second half. His magnificent first symphony — composed about the same time as the Bridge piece — deserves to be in the company of the Brahms symphonies, on which it was patterned, with Elgar also eschewing programmatic ideas and preferring a conservative style of form and orchestration.

The piece’s main theme, heard right at the opening of the first movement, is noble and simple, march-like. The composer described it as a call to something above the squalor of daily life. Although all the details were not quite in place, especially in the unity of the strings, Litton — who was once an NSO assistant conductor under Mstislav Rostropovich and currently serves as music director of the Bergen Philharmonic — had the big-picture sweep of the piece in place.

The second movement, a somewhat harried scherzo, was heavy-footed, a little brutish and spike-accented, with a diaphanous trio section for contrast. It faded seamlessly into the transcendent third movement, a poignant adagio of romantic yearning, with some Wagnerian allusions in the orchestration and a radiant closing section, soft and fragile. Sinister brass motifs unsettled the fourth movement, which cranked up to a brisk allegro through a tortured layering of motifs on one another, until the noble theme from the first movement returned in triumph.

In the middle was Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto, and the only thing British about it was soloist Stephen Hough, returning to the NSO for the first time since 2008.

Hough and Litton made a fine recording of the Rachmaninoff concertos a few years ago with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and that familiarity, obvious in their rapport, was crucial to the performance’s success. The piece, remarkably not performed by the NSO since 1992, is a mixture of youthful exuberance — Rachmaninoff composed and premiered it while still a teenager — and later editing to make it more in line with the schmaltz and bombast of his second and third concertos.

Hough dug into the keyboard part with often ferocious abandon, squeezing and pulling the rubato of his solo sections while not letting the orchestral parts wallow. His technique is prodigious, if not always perfectly polished, but rough edges can be bracing. The thing that was missed was a truly melting legato in the right hand, which was just not as lush and melodious as it could have been.

After a moody second movement, with a delightful light touch from Hough in the faster section, the third movement — somewhat unexpectedly, an Offenbach-like galop — was a madcap tour de force.

This concert repeats Friday afternoon and Saturday night.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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