Antal Dorati is an elusive breed of conductor. He seems to go out of his way to eschew the platform showmanship that catapults a number of his colleagues to the top of their profession. His strength is simply that, unlike a few of those colleagues (no names necessary), Dorati in his best moments is a very fine conductor indeed.
His four concerts this week with the National Symphony bring to an end the official ties that have linked him to the orchestra over the last decade. And Dorati's authority as an interpreter, as an orchestra builder, as a technician and as a cosmopolitan musician never seemed more indisputable than at last night's opening concert at the Kennedy Center.
It is unlikely that before Dorati took over the NSO at the beginning of the past decade the orchestra could have gotten through that behemoth of the 19th-century orchestral repertory, Bruckner's 7th Symphony, with more than credit for a brave try. Last night, the Bruckner was the centerpiece of the program, and the NSO sounded like a different orchestra -- an enormously better one.
Most importantly, the interpretation was first-rate. The beautifully judged tempos, the precisely managed transitions, the careful balances and the exact attention to dynamics all bore the marks of a major Bruckner conductor, of which there are few.
The National Symphony seemed to realize this, and gave their former music director all they have got. Any worries that the strings could not sustain the long lines of the majestic slow movement, or that the supplemented brass section was not up to the smashing climaxes, were quite misplaced. In fact, the movement's serenely bittersweet coda, which the composer regarded as "funeral music" in memory of Wagner, could hardly have been better played.
Furthermore, there was no sign of the harsh snarling of the brass and the hardness of the first violins sometimes produced by the players under Mstislav Rostropovich.
Admittedly, these were not the sonorities that the orchestras of Chicago or Berlin or Vienna would bring to the music, but, that aside, there was little to fault.
Before the Bruckner, there was a chaste, lightly inflected and stylish playing of Mozart's last piano concerto, the 27th. The splendid soloist was Ilse von Alpenheim, who also is Mrs. Dorati.
After this season, Dorati will no longer be principal guest conductor. But he will return next year, and one hopes for many more to come.