The National Symphony Orchestra’s first concerts at home after a long European tour show the group to be firing on most cylinders, if still a little tired. At the Kennedy Center on Thursday night, music director Christoph Eschenbach presented three works from the standard repertoire, by Prokofiev and Bruch, and the NSO debut of violinist Ray Chen.
This overemphasis on programming chestnuts is frustrating. The NSO has already performed the Prokofiev “Classical Symphony” this season (and I can’t recall it having performed his Symphonies Nos. 2, 3 or 4 since Mstislav Rostropovich’s tenure). There are so many fine, deserving, appealing works, particularly from the 20th century, that are passed over for yet another go at the canon. One hopes for a broader outlook from the incoming music director.
As for the “Classical Symphony,” I was somewhat alarmed at Eschenbach’s saturnine reading of the first movement, the musicians having probably never played it that slowly before, but there were nice things in the other movements, particularly the lovely floating first violins in the Larghetto, and the energetic finale.
Chen has a big-time international career: winner of major competitions, a Sony recording contract, the loan of a priceless Stradivari violin, and tours with major orchestras. Elegant in dress and deportment, and tech-savvy (with a big presence on multiple Internet platforms), Chen has charisma to spare, and is a very gifted fiddler.
But something is missing for me. His tone has intensity without richness; he changes colors skillfully, but the phrases don’t sing from within. In the Bruch “Scottish Fantasy,” he was at some disadvantage because of the brass-heavy orchestration, needing to force his playing most of the time. He handled the difficult second movement duet with the flute very nicely, but elsewhere it was a matter of just trying to be heard. Eschenbach, to his credit, took the somewhat schlocky piece seriously, even symphonically, in the two slow movements, but he could have carved out more sonic space for his soloist.
Prokofiev’s massive Symphony No. 5 is certainly a flawed work. The seams show everywhere — sections tacked on or ending abruptly — and zillions of notes go unheard because of clotted orchestration. This was the Soviet master’s Achilles’ heel, the clean textures from the “Classical Symphony” disappearing in his later work. He never learned to handle large forces with anything close to Shostakovich’s skill. And yet, the piece contains some of his most memorable ideas, particularly in the middle two movements. The lyrical power and blend of humor and feeling will keep it in high rotation as long as there are orchestras to play it.
Eschenbach’s understanding of this complex score was manifest, but as always, he sometimes struggled to convey simple things to his musicians. Tentative entrances happen too much under his baton, though once things have settled he can elicit playing of great expressivity. Kudos to the NSO’s low brass, who handled the difficult Adagio with aplomb.
The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow.