Anne Midgette Reviews NSO Program of Beethoven's Sixth, Bartók's 'Wooden Prince'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

After a gala opener of short vignettes last weekend, the National Symphony Orchestra plunged into its regular subscription season Thursday night with two long, meaty narratives.

Storytelling was the theme of an unusual but interestingly balanced program. The first half was given over to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the "Pastoral," in which the composer illustrates a day in the country, from a babbling brook to a thunderstorm.

The second half offered Bart?k's ballet "The Wooden Prince," which, as the conductor Iv?n Fischer succinctly described it in brief but engaging comments from the podium, "is a simple fairy tale with a prince, a princess and a fairy." (It sounds better when you say it with a Hungarian accent, and a conductor's timing.)

Fischer is a thoughtful programmer. He was, in effect, the featured soloist Thursday -- as indeed he is a main attraction at every one of his too-few programs as the NSO's principal conductor (there are four left this season, in January, April and June). And he offered pieces that showed two of his particular interests.

The conductor will focus on Beethoven later this season in New York, where he will conduct all the symphonies on four consecutive days in March, half of them with his own Budapest Festival Orchestra and half with the period-instrument group Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. His interest in approaching classical-period music with a historically informed touch was apparent in the light resilience of Thursday's "Pastoral," which had a spring in its step, and even at its most climactic moments restrained itself to the loud speaking-voice volume of a classical fortissimo rather than the all-out, rafter-shaking reverberations of a romantic one.

The result was an album of landscape sketches rather than a stirring statement -- which is, after all, what the music calls for. Fischer, with the precision of imagination that marks his best work, brought out a wealth of nuance in a distinctive interpretation. The brook, in the second movement, was sparkling with sun rather than heavily languorous: The violins sounded crisp and dry. The peasant dance, in the third movement, is often earthy to the point of caricature, but here sounded elegant, smooth and urbane: These countryfolk were painted not by Bruegel, but by Watteau.

The disappointment came with the start of the rain, where the playing unaccountably lost its sharp edge, so that the thunderstorm was slightly anticlimactic. But the final movement glowed, and when the cellos and bassoons joined near the end in a perfect duet, the sound was extraordinary.

As for "The Wooden Prince," it showed Fischer on home -- Hungarian -- turf. One contrast between the evening's two halves was in the color of the orchestra: This piece used a thicker sound, bringing out the strengths of the NSO's strings, especially the violas and cellos that ushered in the figure of a lumbering but attractive prince. "The Wooden Prince" is an example of the jovial infatuation that overtakes many composers when faced with the idea of fairy tale. Bart?k can be angular, but this piece is self-consciously pretty, basking in its illustrative powers on the one hand (the forest rising up against the prince; the princess playing artlessly, and heartlessly, by the river) and emulating a host of earlier models, starting very audibly with Wagner's "Das Rheingold" opening, on the other.

Projecting the stage directions above the orchestra like supertitles was an interesting way to enhance understanding of an unfamiliar work. The words, Fischer said, were there only to help listeners imagine what was happening. This was useful at moments when sound was clearly linked to action -- every time the prince had an idea, the moment was marked by a clear exclamation point from the orchestra -- and also helped bridge the parts of the score that were merely filler, though this 50-minute piece had fewer of those than many evening-length works. On the other hand, Fischer worked so hard to tell the story through his gestures -- particularly with the Petrushka-like slump of his body as the puppet of the title starts to lose its ability to dance, its impotence made audible in a muted hollow slur of cymbals -- that the supertitles seemed almost superfluous.

The performance repeats Friday and Saturday nights.

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