One hallmark of Christoph Eschenbach’s tenure at the National Symphony Orchestra has been innovative programming. Many concerts have balanced familiar favorites with music never before played by the ensemble, or not played in a long time. The trend continues this week under guest conductor Mark Elder, who on Thursday night led a spirited performance of Liszt’s first piano concerto, sandwiched between nostalgic renditions of tone poems by Edward Elgar and Richard Strauss.
Pianist Stephen Hough provided the fireworks in the Liszt, a slightly naughty thriller packed into 20 exciting minutes. If it seems as though Hough was just in the area, he was — playing Liszt’s second concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last year and Rachmaninoff’s first with the NSO the year before that. Hough again showed solid technique, with a whiff of the demonic in the more challenging sections and a theatrical touch that served the piece well.
The high points were the suave sections, such as when the soloist trades distracted reveries with the insistent orchestra in the first movement. The strings set a suitably overheated tone for the second movement, with its Wagnerian theme redolent of “Tristan und Isolde,” answered warmly by a radiant, singing tone from Hough at the keyboard. All the dialogues with solo commentaries in the orchestra were charming, none more so than the Tinkerbell triangle that flitted its way through the third movement.
One wished for that last bit of wild abandon only in the fourth movement, in which the military march, complete with piccolo and crashing percussion, felt just a little cautious. It was here, too, that Hough wilted slightly in his command of Liszt’s infamously intricate fingerwork, flagging in the triplet section, but only in a few moments. The judicious tempo left plenty of room for the Prestos that whirl the piece ever faster and faster, but the ultimate effect could have been more over the top.
Elder’s last visit with the NSO was in 2008, and once again, he helped the musicians shape each piece with a sure hand, carefully judging balances and encouraging beautiful melodic lines. This time, he brought a piece never before heard on an NSO subscription concert, Elgar’s “In the South,” although a young whiz named Andrew Litton led it on a summer performance with the orchestra in 1983.
Elder, taking microphone in hand, gave the piece a knowing but not pedantic introduction, although he left out, perhaps modestly, his own connection to the work. It was the orchestra known as the Hallé — which Elder, as music director, has helped turn around from its financial troubles in the 1990s — that premiered the piece under the composer’s baton.
Billed as a concert overture, but long and pictorial enough to feel more like a narrative tone poem, “In the South” is an affectionate slide show of Elgar’s visit with his wife to the Italian town of Alassio on the Ligurian coast. It opened with bold strokes, brimming with confidence, yielding to a savoring of the sweet appoggiaturas of the slow section that followed. The piece melted, with tings of the triangle, into the central viola solo, with glassy strings echoing soft Mediterranean waves and balmy breezes, and principal violist Daniel Foster as a sweet-voiced Italian tenor singing a folk tune.
On the second half, Strauss’s tone poem “Don Quixote” reunited Foster and principal cellist David Hardy, who served as soloists the last time the NSO programmed this work, in 1998. Foster was a chatty Sancho Panza, supported by buffoonish twists in euphonium and bass clarinet, to Hardy’s more reserved Quixote, at his best in the more intimate variations, especially the gloomy and plaintive soliloquy of the fifth, but sometimes lost in the larger textures.
Somewhere in the last third of the piece, performances of “Don Quixote” often falter and lose the thread of one’s attention. In spite of Elder’s careful ministrations and some fine playing, it happened here, too, but the booming swing of the windmill and the muted-brass bleating of one crowd of extremely frightened sheep were enough to carry off a first-rate evening.
This concert will be repeated Friday and Saturday evening.