Fischer & NSO: Bigness and Balance

Cellist Steven Isserlis played Haydn.
Cellist Steven Isserlis played Haydn.
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

Iván Fischer certainly is signaling his range with his first three concerts as principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. Last week we had the huge, sprawling intensity of the Mahler 3. Next week is an all-Wagner program. And last night there was serious fun. Almost too much fun.

For those alarmed at the term "20th-century music," this program offers balm. Leo Weiner's Serenade and Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony both technically fall under that heading -- they were written in 1906 -- but there is nary a spiky dissonance among them. Each offers a take on late romanticism. Weiner, a Hungarian, offers classicized verve and bounce, which Fischer and the orchestra conveyed with elegance; Rachmaninoff presents a thick stream of melody, dense with inner voices, that can be almost too much of a good thing.

Yet the program was also carefully balanced. The Weiner brought a taste of the conductor's native Hungary that was unfamiliar to the audience and the orchestra (last night marked the work's first NSO performance). From it, the evening first looked back to the actual classical era with another piece with a Hungarian connection, Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1 (Esterhazy, where Haydn was employed for much of his life, is in present-day Hungary); and then forward, or at least laterally, to the romanticism of Rachmaninoff. The program also linked Fischer to NSO history: The Haydn was a Rostropovich calling card, and the Rachmaninoff symphony was heard under Leonard Slatkin as recently as 2006.

For a conductor, stepping onto familiar territory is, paradoxically, a good way to underline the differences in your approach to what has gone before. There is no question that Steven Isserlis, the well-known cellist making his belated NSO debut, represented a considerable departure from Rostropovich. His playing has a generosity of gesture, but it also has an intimacy of sound: His tone is rich but small, his line clean and focused, a taut thread barely drawn out above the small orchestra. He plays with agility and technical chops to burn, but very little showboating; rather than embracing the audience, he asks to be met halfway.

After the intermission, the Rachmaninoff represented a significant change of gears, all shaggy, blunt bigness after the precise, scalpellike incisions of the Haydn. It is an unfair cliche to dismiss this piece as film music, but the resemblance lies in the fact that it contains within it the seeds of film music. Indeed, if this symphony is forward-looking, it is in articulating an aesthetic that was later reflected in a panoply of more popular styles: here a rhythmic fillip that anticipates Gershwin, there a passage in the brass like a '30s dance band, and, of course, in the third movement, a theme that later flowered, or wilted, in the hit pop song "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again." This is a piece of which it can be said that it is actually better than it sounds.

How much better is open to question. Fischer's answer last night seemed to be, quite a bit better. He and the orchestra made more of it than one might have expected. The orchestra generally plays well for him, with a sense of grace and a new tautness. Fischer is quite specific about what he is looking for; the Rachmaninoff is a whole lot of symphony, and it flagged toward the end for me, under or despite the careful detail. Indeed, the evening as a whole was rather a large dose of music that presented light ideas at great length. But the lightness was there, for the most part; when the orchestra opened the final movement in a tousled, sloppy surge, it was an exception that spotlighted what may be a new, improved rule.

The program repeats tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.

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