As music director of the Washington National Opera, Heinz Fricke has been a central figure in the capital's musical life for more than a decade. No conductor has summoned better playing from that troupe's orchestra; indeed, before Fricke came along, nobody seems to have suspected that the musicians had it in them.
Last night, Fricke relocated a couple hundred feet down the red carpet from the Kennedy Center Opera House to the Concert Hall to conduct his first subscription concert with the National Symphony Orchestra. It was familiar material for Fricke -- overtures, arias and tone poems by Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss -- and I suppose it might be dismissed by some listeners as a program of musical bonbons. Yet these particular bonbons are very fine indeed and, at his best, Fricke is a master confectioner.
The soloist was Christine Brandes, whom some will remember for her bright, brilliant performance of the soprano part in the NSO's "Messiah" in 2002. Once a curiously foursquare and cautious version of the overture to Wagner's "Tannhauser" was over with, she took the stage to sing four arias by Mozart -- "Batti, batti" from "Don Giovanni," "Zeffiretti, lusinghieri" from "Idomeneo," "Deh vieni, non tardar" from "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Aer tranquillo e di sereni" from "Il Re Pastore."
Each aria was stronger than the one before; in the "Don Giovanni" and "Idomeneo" selections, one sensed a certain nervousness, as though Brandes and Fricke hadn't yet settled in together (this anxiety, if such it was, should be gone by a second performance). But the "Figaro" aria couldn't have been much more fetching and lyrical, and it was good to hear another piece from "Il Re Pastore" in place of "L'amero saro costante," the only music from the early score that is generally played.
After intermission, Fricke led the highlight of the evening, a suitably yearning and incandescent performance of the "Prelude and Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." The keystone of Fricke's conducting is its logic. His interpretations have clearly demarcated beginnings, middles and ends, and one is seldom in doubt where one is at any time. And so he led a rapturous but immaculate performance of this great music, as melancholy as it is erotic, allowing Wagner's urgency to overflow its paragraphs now and then but never to lose its shape.
And then the evening was consecrated to Richard Strauss. The six songs that Brandes sang -- including the much-loved "Morgen" and "Wiegenlied" -- were gently ecstatic, sung in a voice full enough to be heard from the back row of the Concert Hall, yet almost magically delicate as well. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef made the most of the sweetly throbbing solo that begins "Morgen," and Fricke and Brandes seemed in happy partnership through the entire set. The conductor -- having led an opera or two in his time -- never let the orchestra overpower the soloist; for once in a set of Strauss orchestral songs, the principal character remained the soprano. The program closed with "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks."
Now that Fricke has established his credentials with the NSO, it is to be hoped that we will get to hear him again in some of the larger symphonic repertory. Still, for the moment, this concert -- which will be repeated tonight and tomorrow at 8 -- will do just fine.