Even if it didn't contain both a tiny masterpiece by Mozart and a gigantic showpiece by Shostakovich, the program the National Symphony Orchestra is offering at the Kennedy Center would be well worth attending for the rare opportunity it permits to hear Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto.
Indeed, this is one of the best things the NSO and its music director, Leonard Slatkin, have offered us this season -- a genuine obscurity (it was last played by the orchestra in 1952) brilliantly rehabilitated. Frank Peter Zimmermann was the violinist and he was dazzling throughout his unusually busy and challenging solo part, playing now with sumptuous lyricism, now with fierce, spasmodic tics, but always with Olympian control.
The piece dates from the late 1930s, when Britten was living in North America. Yet he rarely sounded so intensely English, and the concerto closes with a long meditative afterglow that would have pleased his great predecessor, Sir Edward Elgar. Whereas in some of Britten's operas one sometimes has the sense of an expert craftsman making much of limited material, this concerto overflows with ideas, almost too many to contain in a single piece -- tart, tangy and exotic, a prayerful caprice.
Slatkin's accompaniment was marvelously supportive: carefully thought through, neither overwhelming nor deferential but always precisely there. The orchestra, too, seemed determined to present this long-neglected work in the best possible fashion. The result was true teamwork, across the board.
Mozart's tiny Symphony No. 32 in G, K. 318 -- all eight or nine minutes of it -- opened the evening. It sounded lovely and limpid but somewhat under-rehearsed. And no wonder, with all the challenges the orchestra set for itself on the rest of the program.
Now that the Russian Revolution has been forever revealed as one of the two or three greatest disasters ever to befall humankind, it feels decidedly odd to listen to a piece commemorating the abortive first attempt to seize power, which took place in "the year 1905." (Imagine a piece by a mid-century German composer with a subtitle like "The Beer Hall Putsch" and you'll have the general idea.)
Still, if Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 ("The Year 1905") was the first of the composer's works you'd ever heard, I can imagine it would inspire considerable excitement. All those long quiet passages, followed by all that rattling, roaring noise, over and over again -- the smirks, the swoons, the meticulously calibrated hysteria!
Certainly nobody could fault the performance it received last night. Slatkin managed to hold it all together and, despite some quavery solos here and there, the orchestra played with power and panoramic sweep. But it seems to me a poor piece by any standard -- crass and redundant and, for all its pumped-up, wild-eyed fervency, a curiously halfhearted one. I was reminded of some of Shostakovich's film music (especially his soundtrack for Sergei Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin") and, indeed, the endless opening movement sounded like it had been pulled directly from a film, music made virtually meaningless by removing the visual stimulus.
Three members of the NSO -- bassists Richard and Albert Webster and trombonist and euphonium player James Kraft -- are retiring at the end of this season and they were honored with a standing ovation, just after intermission. The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8.