Krivine, NSO show lightness of being in Beethoven, Liszt

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 2:55 AM

The line between old school and Old World was a hard one to establish firmly at the National Symphony Orchestra concert Thursday night.

The orchestra was in the hands of Emmanuel Krivine, a French-born violinist-turned-conductor who exudes a sense of bygone elegance, at once dapper and courtly. He took the podium at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the understatement of a man who would think it a matter of course to pull a chair out for a lady sitting to dinner; the gesture might be a little old-fashioned or unexpected, and may not be to everyone's taste, but it also has a certain charm.

That charm and slightly old-fashioned approach, as well as understatement, characterized the evening, and the orchestra seemed to bask in it - it sounded perfectly lovely.

We have gotten so used to hearing Beethoven as slightly raw and violent - because of today's notions of what constituted original early 19th-century performance style - that a refined reading sounds more old-fashioned than the purportedly authentic 1800s version.

The evening opened with the "Egmont" overture, as lovingly crafted and shaped, warm and solid as a piece of antique furniture. In place of biting attacks, there were flowing legatos; in place of emotional outbursts, Krivine offered restraint, holding back the music, reining it in as it built to a judicious forte.

Judicious didn't mean weighty: Krivine has a light touch, focusing on surfaces and sometimes sliding across them. Beethoven's second piano concerto opened pell-mell, with a kind of puppy-dog eagerness, so that the orchestra had to race to catch up.

It was the second time the NSO had played the piece this calendar year; I didn't hear it in January - when it performed the piece with Michael Stern and Emanuel Ax - so I can't compare that reading with this one with Louis Lortie, who brought an Apollonian beauty to the chains of round notes, each one full and shining, that he stretched up and down the keyboard.

Like Krivine, Lortie is a shaper of sound, physically coaxing out phrases with a nodding head or conducting his right hand with motions of his left, but his playing had a firm clarity that made Krivine seem at times slightly effete. The orchestra was restrained when it might have been bolder - in, for instance, the third movement, when thanks to Krivine's penchant for slow crescendos, the orchestra's entrance sounded pallid after the piano's rousing call to arms. That was certainly deliberate, but it meant that Krivine rather undersold the piece.

The second half of the program looked, on paper, big and even blowsy: Liszt's "Les Preludes" and Richard Strauss's "Don Juan." It might not have seemed a fit for the catlike elegance of Krivine, but his old-fashioned air came straight out of the late 19th century, and this music was home turf.

Krivine kept his heart well off his sleeve, to be sure, but reveled in the range of colors that the score and orchestra offered him, bringing out the ethereal other-worldly watercolor quality of the Liszt (which sounded like a direct precursor of the Wagner of "Tannhäuser's" Venusberg), or letting the horns shine in the Strauss. Before the end of the Strauss, he even indulged in a moment of outright drama, creating and holding an achingly long silence in the music, a place of complete stillness without a single audience cough, before tying up the whole thing efficiently.

Old-fashioned he may have been, but it sounded as though he was doing something right: The NSO played with an old-fashioned solidity that suited the orchestra very well.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday night at 8.

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