Rafael Fru hbeck de Burgos conducted Stravinsky's masterpiece, "Le Sacre du Printemps," with the National Symphony in a performance that no doubt would have greatly appealed to the composer.
For all its orchestral firepower, this was "Sacre" that was relatively brisk, austere, rhythmically strict and businesslike. That was the way Stravinsky used to conduct it, though he would never have gotten the precision or aural velocity that the National Symphony produced last night. He simply was not as skilled a conductor as Fru hbeck.
Stravinsky himself was the one who started the extenuated brouhaha about the proper style for this work, when he sniped at the Bernstein and von Karajan ways with "Sacre" in a now-famous essay. He denounced their rhythmic flexibility and the manners in which both conductors luxuriated in the work's often opulent sonorities. For the most part last night, Fru hbeck committed neither of these crimes.
"Sacre" is perhaps the most exhaustive exercise in savage tensions ever written. There is a sexual dimension to the tensions too, but "Sacre" is so massive a work that it leaves in the shade a more overtly sexual work like Ravel's "Bolero."
It is this latter aspect of "Sacre" that Stravinsky and Fru hbeck underplayed. There were, however, exceptions to this in last night's performance. The muted antiphonal section in the second half, for instance, was played almost startlingly softly, and it was very beautiful. Given what the composer wrote, Fru hbeck's interpretation was fully justified; but it was also a little impersonal.
Since the decibel level of "Sacre" cannot be outmatched, the thing to do on any program with it is to counterprogram. Last night that was done with Beethoven -- the "Coriolan" Overture and the Third Piano Concerto, with Garrick Ohlsson the pianist. Once again the performances were on the cool side, except in the prayerlike slow movement of the concerto, which was beautifully rapt.
Part of the coolness may have come from Ohlsson's choice of piano, an Austrian Bo sendorfer. It had a lighter, more transparent sound than a normal Steinway. The benefit was greater clarity of sound without having to force the instrument. And the high treble notes were especially pure and delicate. The loss was a somewhat hollow bass, especially in the second octave below middle-C.
The "Coriolan" was slow, beautifully articulated and less intense than the interpretation with the NSO last month under Klaus Tennstedt.