In Washington, with so many accomplished "second-tier" orchestras, it would be easy to take the National Philharmonic for granted. But this ensemble, conducted by Piotr Gajewski, plays with greater refinement and virtuosity every season.
At Saturday's Strathmore Hall concert, the Philharmonic played Mendelssohn's "Hebrides" Overture with silken string tone, supple woodwind soloing and sensitive dovetailing of melodic lines and inner voices. Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 received a hale-and-hearty reading that tapped all of the score's sentiment and wit, and offered the kind of confident execution that would make any smaller city justifiably proud to call the Philharmonic its premier orchestra.
If attacks in Brahms's Violin Concerto sounded a bit tentative, Gajewski still drew lovely phrasing and subtle dynamic shading from his musicians in an understated approach to the piece that suited soloist Cho-Liang Lin -- a violinist who has been noted more for small-scale nuance than for bravura grandstanding.
Lin offered an expectedly un-showy reading of the Brahms. Perhaps there's a little less purity in his tone now than in his youth, and technically punishing passages revealed a trace of more effort and less consistency with intonation than in the past. But this fine player's approach to the score retained all his accustomed elegance and musical insight, and he was still able to spin meltingly lovely pianissimo lines that held the audience rapt.
-- Joe Banno
The Library of Congress closed out its chamber music season with a bang Saturday, as three world-class musicians, still in their 20s, joined forces for a memorable all-Schubert evening. Pianist Inon Barnatan and violinist Liza Ferschtman, apparently making their local debuts, were joined by cellist Alisa Weilerstein.
The evening's undisputed star was Barnatan, who opened with the C Minor Sonata (D. 958). He displayed the widest variety of touch and dynamics that I've ever heard from the library's aging, balky Steinway. From barely audible, feathery trills to heaven-storming thunderbolts, Barnatan orchestrated every phrase with sovereign mastery. Though sometimes a little too sensitive to Schubert's harmonic divagations, pulling back the tempo more than necessary for the secondary key areas, this was still fine musicmaking wedded to astounding technique.
The high point was the Fantasy in C, D. 934. No music was on hand for either Ferschtman or Barnatan, for one of the longest, most difficult duos ever written. I'd never seen this feat attempted anywhere, and the performance was extraordinary at all levels. Ferschtman's intonation was not infallible in the variation section, but the unanimity between the artists, down to the tiniest nuance, was almost eerie. It was a true tour de force of ensemble playing.
The E-flat Trio, D. 929, clearly had less rehearsal than the fantasy, and here Barnatan did not sufficiently scale his sound to the ensemble. But the impassioned, seat-of-the-pants performance brought down the house.