From NSO, Another Heaping Helping of Rachmaninoff

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2006

With all the great music in the world, it is a little surprising to find Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 on the National Symphony Orchestra's roster for the second season running. Nevertheless, here it is again -- a big, glutinous puddle of sound that submerged the entire second half of the NSO's concert at the Kennedy Center last night, under the direction of Leonard Slatkin.

I am hardly an indiscriminate Rachmaninoff basher. Many of the smaller works, especially the songs, seem to me minor masterpieces; the Cello Sonata is rapt and haunting, and the best moments of the piano concertos all but define a certain wild-eyed strain of musical romanticism. But the Second Symphony is so lethally long and dull that it calls to mind Stephen Crane's pithy dismissal of "War and Peace": "It goes on and on like Texas." Yes, and Texas perceived from a slow-moving vehicle, at that.

So why did Slatkin bring the symphony back two years in a row? I don't know, but his programming increasingly suggests the dilemma of a man who is running out of ideas. Next season, for example, it has been announced that we will hear the duo-pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque yet again; they are attractive musicians, to be sure, but did Washington really need a third rendition of "Carnival of the Animals" in such short succession?

Rant over, it must be admitted that there were elements to admire in the Rachmaninoff performance -- mostly some pensive and immaculate solos from the first desk players. Slatkin seems comfortable in this music, and he let it unfold without hurry or much incident, not exactly playing down its vulgarity but not overemphasizing it, either. The NSO sounded rather like a film orchestra, not the worst thing in the world for the Rachmaninoff Second.

The evening began with a sloppy slip and slide through Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and String Orchestra." It usually takes brass and winds to make an ensemble sound as blowzy as the NSO did in this piece, but never underestimate the potential of unadorned strings playing as loudly and crudely as possible.

Far and away the best music of the night came with Melinda Wagner's "Extremity of Sky," a concerto for piano and orchestra that melds high modernism with prismatic color and romantic fancy. It is in four movements, contains a whopper of a part for pianist (here the estimable Emanuel Ax) and combines assertive mantric chiming with soft, neoimpressionist chords. Imagine Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen teaming up to write a concerto, add a certain lithe sense of mystery that is Wagner's own and you'll have some idea of "Extremity of Sky."

The complete program will be repeated Saturday night at 8; tomorrow afternoon at 1:30, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 will replace the Wagner work. Why the substitution? Ax and the NSO are leaving on an East Coast tour next week, and, according to an orchestra spokeswoman, this was a chance to run through both featured concertos before departure. The Beethoven is a glorious work, but something of a known quantity (surprise! -- Ax not only has played it with Slatkin and the NSO before, but they have already taken it on a previous tour together). I'd hold out for the Wagner.

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