Some programs make a whole, and some do not. Last night's National Symphony concert with conductor Rafael Fru hbeck de Burgos was one that did not. Two short pieces of Ravel, the Bartok Concerto No. 1 for Violin and the Beethoven Seventh Symphony -- all good music, but not good in the same program.
The Ravel pieces seemed tentative -- not enough command to get things under way. The Bartok concerto is a novelty. Rarely heard, it is the work of a composer-in-progress. It has beautiful moments, but it moves in jigs and starts. It changes directions often -- the work of a young composer who shows infinite promise as yet unrealized. The signs of the future Bartok are there, the Hungarian cast of the melodies, the penchant of the composer for short musical burlesques, a beginning of a harmonic language. The first of the two movements has an exquisite opening, violin added to violin until the full string sound is ablaze. One is reminded of Liszt and the Op. 1 of Alban Berg, and there is more than a suggestion of Richard Strauss. But the piece is fragile, episodic and, in the end, unsatisfying.
William Steck, the NSO's concertmaster, was the soloist. His calm approach to this nervous music was of great service, collecting its fragments and giving one a sense of cohesion. His is not a big tone, but there was a freshness and sweetness that reminded one of alpine air. It was this quality that gave the concerto a simplicity that saved it from its inherent faults. The NSO was rightfully proud of its concertmaster.
There was a chance to nail down the program with the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. Fru hbeck took the chance, but it did not work. His conducting style is exacting, but the performance was not precise. It was vigorous, boisterous and punchy, but it lacked incisiveness. The first movement was impetuous, the second lacking in its special kind of mystery. The Scherzo fell into separate sections. The last movement was too fast to be rhythmic, certainly too fast to be clear. Fru hbeck whipped the orchestra into a froth for the finale, but froth is not substance.