Review: With Beethoven, Dausgaard’s NSO debut is a curious letdown

Thomas Dausgaard, the Danish conductor who made his National Symphony Orchestra debut Thursday night, is something of a Beethoven specialist — if that term has any meaning when it’s virtually de rigueur for any conductor worth his salt to record a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies.

Dausgaard’s contribution to the NSO’s ongoing Beethoven concentration this season was the Fourth Piano Concerto, which is at once the subtlest and, to many listeners, the greatest (forget those who dismiss it as the “Damenkonzert,” the ladies’ concerto, due to its relative lack of virtuosity).

And Dausgaard is an expressive, graphic, charismatic conductor. So it was a disappointment that he and Nikolai Lugansky, the piano soloist also making his debut with the orchestra, so seldom seemed to hit the mark with a performance that was carefully shaped but curiously inarticulate.

Dausgaard did a lot better on Scandinavian turf, where his molding of the music seemed more sculptural and less merely micromanaged. With a full head of steel-gray hair and an athletic body that twisted and thinned out like a Gumby doll, he tried to wrest the music out of the orchestra.

He made an easy figure to follow in “En Saga,” a tone poem that Sibelius wrote early and revised somewhat later to reconcile it with his more experienced work. Dausgaard made a compelling case for its dark, easy beauty, laid out in big, clear gestures, colored by violas. Indeed, the piece must be something of a calling card for him; he led it with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2008.

The Beethoven got off on the wrong foot: Lugansky’s foot, at least, was planted rather heavily on the pedal, and the piano’s opening was at once slightly fussy and suffered from a lack of clarity as a result.

Lugansky was making his NSO debut, but not his Kennedy Center one — he played Rachmaninoff’s Third here a year ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Beethoven Fourth might have been a bid to show that he can do more than the sophisticated virtuosity he showed then, but his slight distance from the piece did the reading no favors. There’s no question that he’s a brilliant player, but his self-consciousness, compounded with Dausgaard’s exaggerated phrasings, muted the performance overall, despite some moments of gorgeous playing — particularly in the first cadenza, where he simply got to show his stuff.

The symphonies of Carl Nielsen inexplicably remain the province of aficionados. Bernstein delved into them; Blomstedt championed them. But the NSO hadn’t played his Fourth, called “The Inextinguishable” and perhaps his most popular, since a young conductor named Esa-Pekka Salonen made his own debut here in 1985.

It’s a piece that grabs you by the throat and leaves you flattened, culminating with a pitched battle between two full sets of timpani, positioned at opposite sides of the orchestra, that evokes nothing so much as trench warfare (the piece was written during World War I). The second timpanist, observing a performance tradition other conductors have also followed, emerged out of the audience during the final movement with a brisk, grim step and took his place at the drums at the front of the stage, as though it was time to take the performance in hand.

There’s a reason to juxtapose this piece with the Beethoven concerto. Written as Nielsen was moving ever more into the realm of neo-Classicism, it contains a lot of apparent references, or hints of references, to the earlier work — notably the repeated four-note figure that emerges in the first movement of both.

Neo-Classical is not the first term a newcomer might think of, though, for this big, muscular work. Dausgaard couldn’t get the orchestra to play with all the finesse one might have wished for, but he got a lot of blunt force out of them, and muscled the concert back into the realm of the viscerally exciting where it had begun.

The program repeats Friday at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday night at 8.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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