Schubert's 'The Great' Shows NSO At Its Best

By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 12, 2007

Last night's National Symphony Orchestra concert gave a full, detailed snapshot of where this ensemble is as it searches for a new artistic leader. Outgoing Music Director Leonard Slatkin is leaving behind a mostly well-groomed, highly professional ensemble that is hungry for greater artistic challenges. Their principal offering together, Schubert's incandescent Symphony No. 9, "The Great," elicited the best playing the NSO currently offers.

There is no finer music in the repertoire, and every musician onstage gave it his or her all. Slatkin, conducting without a score, was clearly as enthralled with the piece as everyone else, but did rather too much with it at times. His hyper-detailed stick technique sometimes gets in the way of natural phrasing. His tempos in the second and fourth movements did not allow the music to breathe and prevented Schubert's innumerable expressive accents from standing out. He still allows textures to become opaque when the full ensemble plays forte, with the brass covering all. And he is apparently unaware of the important textual corrections in the second and third movements that have been circulating for at least 20 years.

But niggling aside, the performance often gave great pleasure. The strings were alternately vigorous and velvety, and a newcomer on principal oboe sang out most appealingly. The symphony's opening featured luscious violas and cellos, and there was nary a bobble anywhere in the brass. While the staccato triplets in the finale went by too fast to have any expressive force, there was no faking; everyone played his or her heart out.

I had come to presume it was impossible for an NSO soloist not to get a standing ovation, but Midori, the evening's violin soloist, somehow managed. Whether Bart¿k's discursive and episodic Violin Concerto No. 2 left the audience cold, or whether Midori's overly tense sound failed to reach many of them, two perfunctory curtain calls were all this masterpiece could draw.

The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8.

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