Music review

Frühbeck de Burgos leads NSO, lightly, through Mozart and Strauss

By Robert Battey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos is one of the National Symphony Orchestra's favorite guest conductors, and not without good reason: The maestro and the NSO have a long history of mutual respect and excellent concerts.

On Thursday night, in a program of Mozart and Strauss, the shakedown performance presented a good catalog of the orchestra's strengths, yet also its weaknesses.

Frühbeck de Burgos is an avuncular figure on the podium. There is neither the clinical micromanaging of Lorin Maazel nor the manic improvisation of Valery Gergiev. He indicates the shape and character of a phrase with a detailed upbeat and then allows the orchestra to execute it without further interference.

That trust engenders confidence and relaxed musicmaking. In the numerous solo quartet passages in Mozart's "Serenata notturna," Frühbeck de Burgos didn't conduct; he simply listened with us. The playing was airy and pleasing.

Pianist Ingrid Fliter then held forth in Mozart's Concerto in A, K. 488. Fliter, who presented in an interesting Annie-Oakley-goes-to-Argentina outfit, has a worldwide career and an EMI recording contract; she impressed with her fluid ease with the instrument (especially the first-movement cadenza), but her phrasing became soggy at times. In the slow movement, the pulse was sometimes vague. Frühbeck de Burgos's accompaniment was outstanding, though: sometimes stitching soloist and orchestra together with a fine needle, other times simply staying out of the way.

Richard Strauss's gargantuan and rarely heard "Symphonia domestica" -- a celebration of the quotidian -- was his next-to-last tone poem, and a kind of summing-up of the genre. When someone writes as many notes as Strauss did, it becomes necessary to have templates and macros in which to organize them. Although "Symphonia domestica" does not quote previous works, the spirit of "Death & Transfiguration" and "Don Quixote" is strong. And, in turn, the melodic DNA of "Symphonia domestica" can be found throughout "Der Rosenkavalier," which he was to begin a few years later. Although it doesn't have quite the forward thrust and memorable surprises of Strauss's greatest works, it presents the master in a genial, expansive mood, in full command of his powers.

The NSO does that challenging piece an average of once a decade, and everyone comes loaded for bear. Although Frühbeck de Burgos could not hold down the brass in the final scenes -- and though the wind section often has intonation problems when playing en masse -- this performance featured committed, edge-of-seat playing from all assembled. Conducting the 45-minute piece from memory, Frühbeck de Burgos galvanized and supported the musicians, exhorting and directing traffic with affectionate care. Oboist Nicholas Stovall handled his high-lying part admirably, and concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef's many solos were excellent, as usual.

In a piece of such complexity, some seams will inevitably show -- but the final two performances should continue to develop.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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