Partway through Benjamin Britten’s “Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge” on Thursday night, I was overtaken by a sense of well-
The music was quite wonderful. (It was written in 1937, when Britten was young and energetic and roaming across a wide range of styles and timbres while developing his voice as a composer.) The conductor, John Storgards, was leading with exuberant vitality. And the orchestra sounded terrific.
The piece is written for strings alone, and the National Symphony’s are very fine. They went to every extreme. Big, fat double-basses laid down searing heartbeats under a pathos-laden Romantic outcry in the upper voices; then there were high, nervous squiggles and picks and plucks in the violins. Getting to hear a good orchestra play a strong piece of music in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall seemed, at the moment, like a fine thing.
The program was a meaty one, with three pieces that were all more or less equals. The Britten, with its quick variations piling up waltz upon adagio upon a rapid section that evoked Italian opera, was the lightest work of the evening, but it was no mere amuse-bouche. It was followed, appropriately enough, by the work of a friend of Britten’s, Dmitri Shostakovich, whose first cello concerto — played here by Sol Gabetta — was written for the NSO’s former (and still much-loved) music director, the late Mstislav Rostropovich.
The evening ended, perhaps inevitably, with a return to the 19th century: Schumann’s first symphony. That does not represent a simple ending; Schumann’s symphonies take a bit of unlocking from their interpreters to really go.
Do instrumentalists who move into conducting tend to bring a certain expressive hyperbole to their work? Certainly they seem to at the NSO, whose current music director, Christoph Eschenbach, is expressive as well. Storgards is a violinist — he was concertmaster under Esa-Pekka Salonen (another instrumentalist turned conductor) in Sweden — and he leads with electricity that can sometimes edge toward vehemence. But that keeps things lively on stage.
Sometimes he lays down his baton as if wanting to put aside all obstacles between himself and the musicians, as some other conductors, such as Mariss Jansons, do. In Storgards’s case, I wondered whether it sometimes made him hard to follow, since there were a few moments in the Britten when it sounded as if people were anticipating his entrances a little too soon. In general, though, he brought out a nice robustness in the ensemble.
He did not, however, overpower the soloist. Gabetta played with a lovely, firm fluidity, without hyperemoting or trying to force her elegant sound. This concerto is a showpiece for the soloist, of course; the cadenza is even written as a movement of its own, an intense solo intermezzo between the graceful second movement, with the cello and celesta trading phrases in the empyrean reaches of the scale, and the energetic dance of the finale. It’s a high-wire act of a cadenza if ever there was one, and Gabetta made it sing. At the end of the work, she responded to the ovations with a tribute to her instrument: an arrangement of a Catalan folk song often performed by Pablo Casals, arranged for her and the entire cello section (some of whom came to the orchestra under Rostropovich himself).
I found the Schumann the night’s least satisfying work, but this was less the fault of the performance than of Schumann himself. Storgards’s emphatic approach yielded a reading that was redolent of bombast. The first movement of this piece seems to be seeking to drive home a point, and as led by Storgards, every phrase seemed written in bold type, with underlining and a few exclamation points thrown in. This isn’t necessarily a fault; it just didn’t win me over.
But there is no question that Storgards is an impressively talented conductor. The conclusion of the Britten, for me, was a summation of striking ability. He led it through several layers of effects and dynamics, each signaling impending closure in different ways — something that sounded as if it were building toward a loud climax yielded to a passage that made you think the work was about to die away. When the end did come, it was with a firm, half-loud chord that rang with more authority and finality than many a fortissimo ending in my experience.
It was, surprisingly, the orchestra’s first-ever performance of this work, and it was a fine tribute to Britten’s centennial.
The program repeats tonight and tomorrow at 8 pm.