I wrestled with which concert to go to on Sunday afternoon. At Vocal Arts DC, the countertenor David Daniels, a veteran and a reliably fine performer, had jumped in to replace the originally scheduled bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk in recital. Meanwhile, Washington Performing Arts was offering the Orchestre National de France: The program was not very exciting on paper, but I was curious to hear Daniele Gatti, the conductor, who will be taking over the august Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Netherlands at the end of this season, and the violinist Julian Rachlin, a former Lorin Maazel protege whom I hadn’t heard for some time.
Fortunately, the scheduling allowed me to pick both. And I was glad I did.
Daniels, at the Terrace Theater, demonstrated that there — through Brahms to the contemporary, notably the final encore, “Blackberry Winter,” dedicated to the late founder of Vocal Arts, Gerald Perman.
The countertenor voice has a shorter lifespan than some other voice types. Daniels is nearly 50, and his instrument sounds a little frayed and dry. But when you bring artistry and communication to this degree, that doesn’t matter; indeed, his recital was a fine antidote to the many, many singers who focus on beautiful sounds and technical perfection, and fail to communicate anything at all. And if it was sheer opulence of sound you wanted, the marvelous pianist Martin Katz was there to provide it as an expressive and supportive partner.
A set of Reynaldo Hahn songs fits both artists like a glove. Daniels’s voice has the perfect blend of sweetness and smokiness to bring across these understated gems, down to the aching vulnerability in “Chanson au Bord de la Fontaine” (“Song at the Edge of a Fountain”), in which unaccompanied vocal lines — here given poignancy and focus by the slight rasp in his voice — are nudged along by telling piano chords, like a hand swirling through water. And the lone Handel aria, “Dove sei” from “Rodelinda,” hit a sweet spot in his voice, showing that this operatic repertoire remains home turf.
As for the Orchestre National de Paris, a lot of people seemed to share my lack of excitement: The Kennedy Center Concert Hall was only about half-full. It’s a shame, because this was a masterful performance, though I grow weary of defending fine concerts of unexciting pieces, however exciting they become in the right hands.
I was won over almost immediately by an exquisite, languid, idiomatic performance of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” in which each instrument offered precision while maintaining the soft, fluid contours of this score.
But it was Shostakovich’s first violin concerto that was the real tour de force. Rachlin, the soloist, is a small, contained firebrand of a man onstage, and he eased his way into the opening movement with playing that was almost painful in its muted restraint, over the humid, brooding chords of the orchestra, all given extra power by Gatti, who visually conveys such a sense of physical force that his restrained gestures communicate a sense of coiled power waiting to strike.
The second movement then uncurled into some of the most biting fierce Shostakovich playing I can remember hearing. And when Rachlin got going into the final cadenza, he became a wild thing, a kind of inspired mad scientist in a monologue both profound and terrifying, until the orchestra finally chimed in with ferocious clashes of regretful understanding.
Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is a piece I have heard so often that I had absolutely no desire to hear it again, but Gatti and the orchestra made me glad I had with a thoughtful and powerful reading that led to a conclusion that seemed informed by the Shostakovich that had preceded it, more abrasive and aggressive than a triumphant resolution.
You can read complete versions of both reviews online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/anne-midgette