Maazel and the NSO's Seductive 'Don Juan'

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

Nobody elicits a richer and more opulent tone from the National Symphony Orchestra than Lorin Maazel. At his best, he is the closest thing we have today to the late Leopold Stokowski -- a sonic wizard who can do anything he wants with his musicians.

Whether one likes everything he does is another matter, of course. Maazel can be willful, imperious and almost comical in his obsessive micro-management. His intricate, hyper-nuanced interpretations can drive a listener to distraction. Yet the best moments of the NSO's current program -- which is devoted entirely to the music of Richard Strauss and which received its first performance last night at the Kennedy Center -- must be counted among the most glorious sounds I've heard from this orchestra.

In typically idiosyncratic style, Maazel devoted the first half of the concert to two haunting works Strauss wrote in his eighties, during that fabled and unparalleled "Indian summer" of his, and then moved on to music written in the composer's twenties and early thirties, when he was the brashest and cheekiest of young revolutionaries.

The second half of the program was by far the better one. "Don Juan" was bursting with animal spirits, featuring a series of magnificent booms from the lower brass and sweetly citric Gypsy fiddling from concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef. What a piece this is -- beginning as it does with one of the most assured declarations of genius ever penned by a journeyman composer writing his first important work: Within a few bars, Strauss tells the world that there is a new master on the scene.

"Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" was almost as good -- the insistent central theme running through the piece like a mantra, always prevailing over the anthropomorphic sound effects with which Strauss lards the score.

"Metamorphosen" (1945), which began the program, was described by Strauss as a "study for 23 solo strings." It is, therefore, not to be considered a work for a unified section of an orchestra, but rather as one of the world's largest pieces of chamber music. There are few sadder compositions: "Metamorphosen," which concludes with a quotation from the funeral march from Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, is a lament for the lost Germany in which Strauss had grown and thrived, now broken and debased at the end of the most destructive war in human history.

Maazel took "Metamorphosen" slowly -- too slowly at first, as though he were breathing life into an inert figure. Gradually things warmed up, and by the end of the long and intricate piece, it became the grave and sumptuous statement Strauss intended.

The "Four Last Songs" are the final music that Strauss composed, a setting of four poems by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff that all, in their various ways, address the subject of impending death. It is music of mind-splitting lushness, imbued with an abiding sense of resignation that is more fulfilled and appreciative than it is morbid. But the "Songs" are terribly difficult to bring off in concert: The soprano must sound coolly tranquil while projecting over a huge orchestra.

Last night, they simply didn't work. Nancy Gustafson has a fine, full, healthy voice but even with the orchestra held in careful abeyance, it was difficult to hear her. And Maazel's interpretation was simply perverse: He took the songs at a breakneck tempo, with all sorts of silly surges and pauses that had little to do with Strauss's instructions and nothing at all to do with the spirit of such calmly transcendent music. (How he badgered Bar-Josef in what should have been a naturally brimming and ethereal solo in "Beim Schlafengehen"!) For this music, I'll stick to my old Schwarzkopf recordings.

Never mind. You will want to hear Maazel's "Don Juan" -- and the NSO in full thrall. The concert will be repeated today and tomorrow afternoon at 1:30.

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