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NSO Musicians Dampen 'Pastorale,' Soar on 'Firebird'

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006

It is probably frivolous to speak of a "favorite" Beethoven symphony: One might as well try to choose the "best" ocean. Yet the Symphony No. 6 ("Pastorale"), which began the National Symphony Orchestra's concert last night at the Kennedy Center, is suffused with a serene radiance quite unlike anything else in the composer's repertory. This is not merely happy music -- it is positively blissful -- yet the joy is less exuberant than content and appreciative. The "Pastorale" passes as though it were a tranquil dream; when it is over, it is hard to believe the splendors we have just heard.

Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos has an association with the NSO that began 25 years ago, when he served as the orchestra's principal guest conductor, and his clear beat and cool authority contrasted with the more urgent and effusive manner of then-music director Mstislav Rostropovich. His interpretation last night had many merits -- it was straightforward, propulsive and proportionate, with some individual touches along the way.

Unfortunately, the orchestra simply didn't play very well for him. Especially in the first two movements, the performance sounded sloppy and soggy, with some unacceptably wayward wind playing in the sublime "Scene by the Brook." Only during the "Thunderstorm" section did there seem to be any real commitment from the musicians. One ended up feeling much more thankful for the piece itself than for the way it was realized last night.

What a difference an intermission can make: After the break, it was as though another orchestra had taken the stage. Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 always struck me as one of the composer's best works. It neither swoons nor smirks, and thus manages to avoid the sweet-sour back-and-forth that is a cliche in some of his lesser pieces. (And how odd to hear castanets in a Russian work!)

The soloist was Julian Rachlin, whose mere presence seemed to inspire tighter, tauter playing from the orchestra. His playing is nicely suited to the concerto: It was tidy but fierce, passionate but patrician, soaring with emotion yet shot through with a cool intelligence.

Then, on to Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite," that mind-splittingly lush exercise in late Russian romanticism that directly precedes the more worldly, increasingly radical modernism of "Petrouchka" and "The Rite of Spring." Many listeners would have been grateful if Stravinsky had continued to write in the style of "Firebird" forever, but this was a composer destined to move through musical history, perpetually giving his shadow the slip.

And it was here that the NSO played like the great orchestra it sometimes is, with real attention to color and line and dimension. The musicians seemed intensely interested in the exploration of this wonderful music, united with de Burgos on a quest for Stravinsky. And they found him, in a rendition of the "Firebird Suite" that seemed derived at least as much from Debussy as from Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. The attacks, while sometimes startlingly loud, had no brutality in them, and softer music was flowing and volatile and mysterious.

If de Burgos and the NSO can get the Beethoven up to snuff, this will be one of the most thoroughly satisfying concerts of the season. But even a less than ideal "Pastorale" is still something pretty special -- and the rest of the program is terrific. It will be repeated tomorrow night and Saturday night at 8.

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