NSO Plays Music by Franz Schmidt for the First Time

Conductor Yakov Kreizberg, left, and piano soloist Lars Vogt.
Conductor Yakov Kreizberg, left, and piano soloist Lars Vogt. (By Marco Borggreve)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

The composers of the past whom we celebrate today are generally the mavericks, the ones who broke the mold. Those who conformed, who tended tradition, who established and upheld the rules rather than bending them, are the ones we tend to forget. But of course, archives and libraries are filled with their works; some are well worth hearing; and one, at least, is being aired with some prominence by the National Symphony Orchestra, which gave its first-ever performance of the music of Franz Schmidt last night, with Yakov Kreizberg leading that composer's Fourth Symphony.

Schmidt was a hugely talented musician who lived into the first decades of the 20th century, until the eve of World War II. He played cello in the Vienna Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler; he led the Vienna Conservatory; he performed the works of all the leading lights of the day, including Schoenberg, who appreciated his championship of "Pierrot Lunaire." His own music bears the stamp of Mahler rather than of Schoenberg, except in a certain lyrical chromaticism that creeps in like a tuneful answer to a 12-tone row.

Indeed, it seems to me that if you like classical music, there is nothing not to like about the Fourth Symphony, which is the work of a man who knows how to make all the parts function together and is filled with one big, expressive, goopy moment after another. The only complaint I can see -- and the handful of people who left early must have had complaints -- is the work's Mahlerian, Brucknerian, "Gurrelieder"-ian, tremendous, ponderous (get the point yet?) length. Schmidt does tend to go on; his best-known work, "Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln," an oratorio about the Apocalypse, is to my taste far too much of a good thing. He is the Oliver Stone of classical music, eager to document and preserve and synthesize and create a monument, but producing something not quite as visionary or pathbreaking as he thinks it is. Still, it goes down easy.

For the conductor, this is grateful stuff to conduct, since it is all about effect: It is not unlike a Broadway musical overture version of late romanticism. This made it a good fit for Kreizberg, whose conducting last night was very flashy and very uneven, lurching from one thing to another with great waves of the baton. He began by cannonballing into Dvorak's "Carnival" Overture, sending music splashing out over the audience; it got everyone's attention. The "Carnival" was a well-thought counterweight to the Schmidt: It, too, is about big effects and telescopes four movements into a single surge of music, a brash take on the Central European sound (Schmidt was of Hungarian stock and cultivated an audible Hungarian flavor in his own music).

In the traditional concerto slot between these two works, the Mozart Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466, was the most unsatisfying thing on the program: not for the fine playing of the soloist, Lars Vogt, in his NSO debut, but for the truly odd way Kreizberg approached it. The opening phrases seemed confused and uneven until Vogt entered like a calming agent and helped smooth everything out. Careening from phrase to phrase does not generally work for Mozart; the piece sounded unfamiliar, but not in a good way. It is a dark-hued piece, a reminder that the Sturm und Drang movement we associate with romanticism was actually alive and well in Mozart's day, and Vogt brought depth and easy smoothness, playing like cream. But the NSO did not perform a lot of Mozart under Slatkin, and last night, it sounded like it.

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