The highlight of this week's programming for the National Symphony Orchestra is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony -- a composition that you may have heard once or twice before; in fact, a composition that the same orchestra performed spectacularly under Klaus Tennstedt less than two months ago. There could hardly have been a more serious challenge to principal guest conductor Rafael Fru hbeck de Burgos (whether he is aware of it or not) than the still fresh memory of that performance, which attracted and enchanted a capacity audience. And he could hardly have met that challenge more brilliantly than he did last night.
Let's not quibble about interpretation; many valid emphases are possible for the Fifth, within the broad framework of Beethoven's clearly expressed intentions. For Fru hbeck, it may not be a mystical Teutonic ritual as it is for others, though he hints at that dimension, too, in moments of hushed phrasing, in rapt pauses between crucial chords, in the way a crescendo bursts forth like sunshine breaking through fog. What matters most, and what can be discussed most usefully, is the quality of the playing the conductor draws from the orchestra. And in this, Fru hbeck was simply superb.
The performance began to be special in the opening phrase, in the first long-held note, which did not sag in the middle as it does so often when the violin bows unanimously change direction. The impression was confirmed with the first entry of the horns -- mellow and precise -- and again with Rudolph Vrbsky's beautifully phrased little oboe cadenza; the singing quality of the low strings at the opening of the second movement; the tone of the whole woodwind section (brought in by Toshiko Kohno's flute) a bit later; the exquisite string pianissimos and ringing brass proclamations and the taut, dramatic pulse of the tympani. As he has done so often, Fru hbeck showed the orchestra how well it can play.
The Beethoven rescued an evening that, until then, had seemed rather obsessed with Central European dance rhythms, first in the "Hungarian Peasant Songs" of Barto'k and then in Dvorak's Piano Concerto in G minor. The Dvorak was beautifully played by Rudolf Firkusny but still sounded like an unsuccessful imitation of Brahms wandering waywardly and without much structural discipline through its own beguiling melodies.