Classical-music lovers are so accustomed to the words “Schumann” and “violin concerto” that many might not notice, at first glance, that those two terms are not often linked. But Schumann’s violin concerto is not, in fact, a well-known work. It did not even receive its premiere until 80 years after Schumann’s death in 1856, and Thursday night’s performance at the Kennedy Center, with Midori as soloist, was the National Symphony Orchestra’s first-ever of the piece.
The concerto was written for the violinist Joseph Joachim late in Schumann’s creative life — in 1853, shortly before the composer was committed to an asylum. Joachim deemed it not up to the composer’s standards, and never performed it; Schumann’s wife, Clara, and friend and sometime protégé Johannes Brahms agreed, and it was not included in Schumann’s complete works. It ended up in a library in Berlin, bound by a stricture that it not be performed until a century after Schumann’s death. (A descendant of Joachim’s, the violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, allegedly learned of an unpublished Schumann work during a séance; she gave its first British performance.)
Since its 1937 premiere — a couple of decades before the specified deadline — there has been debate about whether Joachim was right; Thursday’s performance, alas, did little to overturn his view.
Midori certainly didn’t do a lot to sell the piece; indeed, she gave an impression of ambivalence. She kept plunging in, with a lot of evident physical force, but the sound she produced was small and hard to hear, marked by variations in dynamic and intensity that meant it tended to emerge in tatters through the fabric of the orchestra. It’s a tricky solo part to bring across, involving a lot of noodling around, as if the violin were searching for the point it wants to make. It needed a stronger point of view than Midori brought to it, even supported by Christoph Eschenbach, who is in many ways at his best when called on to collaborate with a soloist; whose recording of the Hindemith concerto with Midori, along with other Hindemith pieces, won a Grammy this year for best classical compendium; and who brought a lighter touch to parts of this concerto than he brought to the other pieces on the program. By contrast, the solo of David Hardy, the NSO’s principal cellist, at the beginning of the second movement offered the firmness and presence that a lot of Midori’s performance lacked.
The program certainly conveyed a sense of familiarity; the little-known Schumann work was bookended by Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” symphony and Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony, linking three staple names of the classical canon. The Mendelssohn is filled with familiar tunes — starting with the “Dresden Amen,” a theme familiar from Wagner’s “Parsifal” and other sources, and ending with the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” — and the Mozart is a masterpiece so familiar that it risks being labeled a chestnut. On this evening, both shared a certain quality of self-importance, not to say ponderousness, that made them seem to last slightly longer than they needed to — despite some striking moments in each.
Under Leonard Slatkin, the NSO specialized in American works; under Eschenbach, it seems to be turning into a Central European orchestra. It has a quality of thick, warm fuzziness that extended even to a solo flute passage in the Mendelssohn’s final movement (though the flute sounded much clearer later) — warmth in the sound, and fuzziness in the blurred entrances that seem to be an orchestra hallmark. This impression of blurring is pronounced by Eschenbach’s penchant for linking together movements of pieces while extending pauses in the middle of movements.
The conductor’s endearing earnestness has pros and cons. A con is that he takes all the music so seriously that it started to take on a quality of sameness; the third-movement minuet in the Mozart sounded heavy, and the Mendelssohn seemed grandiloquent, in part because of a lack of balance in the horns. A pro is that he can seize on, and illuminate, particular passages; the trio in the second movement of the Mendelssohn, with its back-and-forth between winds and strings, was beguilingly lovely. And the first and last movements of the Mozart (which uses fewer players) had an elasticity and energy that the first two pieces, in general, didn’t.
The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.