In the absence of any programs at last night's National Symphony concert in the Kennedy Center, guest conductor Erich Leinsdorf provided the audience with comments that had both scholarship and a lightly barbed wit. "They suspect," he said, referring to the NSO management, "that the printers are so busy with the campaign that they could not get around to these programs. But I suspect that since the Brahms-Schoenberg is being played by the orchestra for the first time, the program annotator is still out looking up the references."
The Brahms-Schoenberg in question is the latter composer's orchestral version of Brahms' G Minor Piano Quartet. It is correct that the NSO had not played it before last night, but by a remarkable coincidence, it was played several times last week in the Opera House, where it is one of the fascinating staples in the Balanchine repertoire of the New York City Ballet.
As Leinsdord rightly said, both Brahams and Schoenberg were geniuses. The result of the latter's rewriting the former is a compelling study in textures and timbres. There are sounds Brahms never used, achieved by instruments he did use and some he did not. There are reminiscences of Beethoven and touches of Mabler. While the melodic and harmonic thought remain Brahms, they come to us in a light Brahms never shed.
The playing in the Brahms was on the remarkable side throughout, with Loren Kitt entitled to very special stardom for his fluent, idiomatic clarinet playing, both in the trio of the third movement and in the wild Hungarian moods of the finale. The third movement is the emotional crown of the work, but the last movement works itself up into a glorious Magyar fling.
Leinsdorf conducted the less familiar Brahms-Schoenberg as if it were one of the four symphonies, with a maistral command that was awesome. Schumann's First Symphohy, which the NSO has rarely played, was at times rough in sound, but became more mellow and alluring in its two final movements. The program will be repeated tonight, tomorrow and Friday, presumably with programs.