The National Symphony's mid-autumn winning streak of concerts with distinguished guest conductors continued unabated last night under the relatively unfamiliar Gunther Herbig.
The evening's piano soloist was a conductor too, a very famous one -- Daniel Barenboim. It was Barenboim's second week as soloist at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the NSO, in appearances that he has sqeezed in between his performances of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" with the Washington Opera.
Two of the mightiest works of the repertory made up the program -- the Brahms D-minor Piano Concerto and Schubert's greatest orchestral creation, the last C-major Symphony. Both received broadly measured performances imbued with unforced lyric sensibility.
No matter what you are anticipating when you walk into a Barenboim concert, he almost always reaches interpretive levels that exceed those expectations.
It is a matter of two indispensible, and related, qualities. One is his control of the piano -- its subtlest sonorities as well as its most dazzling effects (who has more perfect trills, or plays the slow movement more softly, or delivers the huge double octaves with greater clarity?).
The other, and even more important, capacity is his way of keeping the related strands of a phrase -- or for that matter a whole movement -- in such lucid perspective.
An example: The noble first movement F-major lyric theme, countering the pervasive doom that has come before. Barenboim uncannily balanced its natural lyric flow with its harmonic and rhythm counterfoils in the bass, without throwing either element into subordination. And such subtleties of phrasing were achieved dozens of times in the course of this huge work.
The orchestral playing in the Brahms was not of quite such eloquence (though time and again the wind choir was rich and intense).
The Schubert's "heavenly length," as Schumann dubbed it, went on for almost an hour, with Schubert's broad phrases and benign textures stretched to their most expansive. It was a lovely, even-tempered performance.
Herbig drew a mellow sound from the orchestra that sounded like chamber music. Singing lines in the violins and the winds dominated (with the brass and tympani submissive). Dynamics were scaled down and the music was given maximum room to breathe. A very un-National Symphony kind of sound, remarkably well-sustained.