There’s a lot of great Czech music you probably haven’t heard, and the best argument for hearing more of it is hearing it conducted by a Czech. Jiri Belohlavek, the Czech Republic’s leading conductor, has been bringing it to the D.C. area for years, and if his program with the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night wasn’t as packed with unexpected fare as the 2007 outing when he played little-known pieces by Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek, it did include one notable rarity, Bohuslav Martinu’s sixth symphony, that was the highlight of the program.
Martinu was a strikingly prolific composer who, like Brahms, turned late to symphonies. He wrote all six of his symphonies in his maturity, in or for the United States (symphonies 1 and 6 were both commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra), between 1941 and 1953. From the humid, sinuous opening in the winds, rising to a flare from the trumpet, to the noble elegiac strings intoning at the end, there’s nothing remotely off-putting about this music. It moves a Central European sensibility — the full, burnished, warm melodies — into the 20th century, remaining original and unusual, breaking away from sonata form into its own free-form world, but never ceasing to look back over its shoulder and reveal its roots in the 19th-century orchestral tradition.
Belohlavek, 69, has recorded a cycle of the symphonies, and he knows them by heart — literally; he conducted this one from memory. The NSO had never done the piece, but the musicians sounded like willing learners under this experienced baton. The piece requires some leading: Titled “Fantaisies Symphoniques” or Symphonic Fantasias (the composer had moved to Paris by the time it was finished), it moves restlessly across three movements without recourse to conventional forms, with buzzing, jittery strings and winds creating atmospheric points of departure for the music’s various episodes. The NSO did it credit.
There’s no faulting Belohlavek as a technician, but there’s also no denying he was a little less compelling, if no less correct, in the other two works on the program. The evening opened with Mozart’s “Prague” symphony, continuing a Czech theme that might have been better upheld with another Czech work. There was nothing wrong with the Mozart, light and clean, but nothing particularly gripping about it either.
Having opened with two back-to-back symphonies, the program ended with a big concerto and a notable debut that was arguably the big news of the night — that of the debonair and multifaceted pianist Igor Levit, the soloist in Beethoven’s “Emperor,” the Piano Concerto No 5. Levit is focusing this year on three sets of variations: Bach’s Goldberg, Beethoven’s Diabelli, and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Shall Never Be Defeated,” a contemporary classic. The juxtaposition alone (made on a new recording) marks Levit as a multi-talent and a thinker.
His Beethoven on Thursday didn’t disappoint; nor did it fall into expected debut tropes. Levit plays with a clarity and lightness that fit well with Belohlavek’s approach. He can pull out the virtuosic stops, but his most memorable playing was extremely quiet, when he buried his fingers in high notes played with an elfin quality that was positively Mendelssohnian, emerging as tiny and perfect as little crystals of glass. His playing was taut, but not reserved. This wasn’t true of Belohlavek, who occasionally crossed the line from crispness to a mechanical time-beating — possibly a byproduct of keeping the orchestra so well in line.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.