On Thursday night, the National Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach prepared for their upcoming European tour, and an upcoming blizzard, with a big, warm concert. It was also squarely in the wheelhouse of both Eschenbach and the tour stops: Central Europe.
Like the tour (which departs on Feb. 2), it started in the United States. Christopher Rouse’s “Phaethon,” a work big in scale and short in length, has been a popular work and a favorite of Eschenbach’s for many years, with many orchestras, but this was the NSO’s first outing with it, and everyone onstage seemed to enjoy it. The work evokes the galloping of Apollo’s horses as his half-human son, Phaethon, drives his chariot too close to the sun. The sprightly gait of the horses, their attempts to stray from the proper path and Phaethon’s gradual loss of control as their racing becomes more and more powerful, are graphically depicted in driving string figures that first keep veering off into the high strings, then take on an anchoring, warning note in the tuba, and finally come crashing down with a hammer blow (literally, from a mighty mallet in the percussion) and a scattering tumble of downward figures from all the instruments. It’s a hard piece to resist.
But then the evening moved over to Europe and stayed there for a long time. First came Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with Daniel Müller-Schott, who will perform the piece with the orchestra in Europe (the tour’s other soloist is Lang Lang, who will play the Grieg concerto he did so memorably here in October). Müller-Schott is a strong soloist who plays with a dark, warm, slightly throaty tone. Any tendency to impetuosity was kept firmly in check first, by his sense of slightly calculated control, and second, by some notably slow tempi from Eschenbach, setting off lyrical passages, like the second theme in the first movement, with lots of space around them. This led to moments that sounded slightly sluggish, particularly from the orchestra; but also allowed the ear to wallow in Dvorak’s fat melodies, and set up a suspenseful ending, when the cello’s long, held note through the hushed orchestra briefly seemed to signal a different kind of ending than what ultimately resolved into the rousing finale. For many NSO players, the piece is associated with their former music director, Mstislav Rostropovich; Eschenbach and Müller-Schott offered something entirely different, less searing but, in its own way, powerful.
The final piece was Schoenberg’s arrangement of Brahms’s first piano quartet — a late-romantic extravaganza. Eschenbach and the orchestra performed it together only two years ago, so well that it made a nice choice to take on tour, though this reading was slightly more earnest than the last iteration, as if Eschenbach wanted to underline the work’s seriousness. The intimate rhetoric of chamber music is here inflated onto a grand scale, like the warm majestic carpet of sound that opens the third movement, and studded with a whole spectrum of tonal color, notably the percussion that underlines the Hungarian flavor of the fourth movement. It still shows Eschenbach and the orchestra working together, and still made a satisfying close to a full evening.
As of press time, the program was still officially scheduled to repeat on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Check the Kennedy Center website for weather updates.