Even with only two works scheduled, last night's National Symphony program was one of the longest it has played this season -- though not quite as long as it sometimes seemed. It was an all-Brahms program, beginning with his First Piano Concerto and ending with his Fourth Symphony. The music was played approximately as well as it deserved to be, with Yoel Levi bringing distinction to his second consecutive week as guest conductor and pianist Andre'-Michel Schub playing with his usual brilliant fluency and complete control.
Still, the program contrasted rather unfavorably with the varied banquet of contrasting styles that was served by Levi and the orchestra last week: brilliant, witty foolery by Samuel Barber, guilt-ridden angst by Schonberg and heaven-storming (but highly polished) romantic exhibitionism by Camille Saint-Saens. In comparison, Brahms tends to create in rather muted shades of brown and gray in forms that seem sometimes slightly too monumental. He is a charming and talented fellow, but doesn't he occasionally talk a bit too much?
At least it seemed that way last night in the Kennedy Center, and the fault was not with the performers. The orchestra showed exemplary discipline, the conductor had firm control of the music, and the musicians and a fine sense of form.
The soloist, whose 1981 victory in the Van Cliburn Competition was only the last of several prestigious awards, is one of the world's most respected young pianists, and in the Concerto in D minor, he showed why. The opening movement calls particularly for strength, which he has in abundance, and the finale for brilliant technique, which he produces effortlessly. But his finest moments were in the slow movement, where the key to successful communication is a sometimes wistful eloquence -- a quality still fairly rare among pianists of his generation.
The orchestra seemed somewhat subdued through much of the concerto -- perhaps in deference to the soloist, though he seemed to need no kid-glove treatment. But it came into its own toward the end (notably in the last movement's contrapuntal dialogue between high and low strings), and it was in top form for the symphony -- a considerably more interesting work than the concerto.
The symphony's interpretation was crisp and alert throughout, except for a bit of sagging in momentum toward the end of the second movement, and the performance was glorious in the highly energetic scherzo (which is not called a scherzo) and the finale, which is one of the finest movements Brahms ever composed.