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Divided We Stand?

The Kennedy Center
03/07/2019 -  & March 9, 2019
Franz Joseph Haydn: Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major, Hob. VIIb:2
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 2 in C minor (ed. William Carragan)

Kian Soltani (cello)
The National Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

K. Soltani (© Juventino Mateo)

Having moved to Washington towards the end of Christoph Eschenbach’s tenure at the helm of the NSO, of which he remains Conductor Laureate, I only heard him conduct the orchestra on a few occasions, but what I did hear seemed to reflect the general consensus that he is somewhat inconsistent. Fortunately, this week’s program caught him on a good day, as did the 2017 Beethoven Ninth with which he ended his directorship. Indeed, in Haydn’s D Major Cello Concerto, which opened the concert, the accompaniment was arguably the high point. The young Persian cellist Kian Soltani undoubtedly has appeal; his playing is distinguished by its combination of featherweight delicacy of tone and a nearly effusive sense of expression. However, I often sensed a slight lack of poise, and his tendency to lean into the last note of a phrase with a sudden crescendo (most pronounced toward the beginning of the first movement, but recurring occasionally throughout) struck me as distracting and unmusical. He did nonetheless make a unique impression by playing an encore he composed himself, entitled Persian Fire Dance.

Anyway, Haydn’s D Major Concerto finds this composer, so frequently and unjustly neglected on concert programs (I wish two late Haydn symphonies were programmed for every performance of Tchaikovsky or Mahler!), at his most elegant and songful, or nearly so. Accordingly, it was a delight to hear the NSO strings, heavily reduced in numbers though they were, bring to this piece a warmer and more glowing tone than I have yet heard from them. Combined with the lively yet unforced phrasing Eschenbach elicited, the effect was almost Viennese at times. One couldn’t help noticing that the first and second violins were divided antiphonally across the stage; while I am not exactly sure why there should be a connection here, this is not the first time I have noticed a string section’s tonal sweetness enhanced when divisi violins are employed, and I hope that the NSO is permitted at least to experiment with this seating arrangement for a while longer.

At any rate, I was pleased to see that divisi violins were retained when the full orchestra came onstage for Bruckner’s Second Symphony. Even better, the strings produced just as sweet a tone as before, even if ensemble was not always completely perfect—this work, hardly a repertory staple, was last played by the NSO in 1991, which occasion marked its NSO debut. The Brucknerian in me is grateful to Eschenbach for his advocacy of this work, which he has recorded in Houston and to which, this evening at least, he brought an impressive sense of authority. Yet it would be difficult to argue that the Second possesses the overall cohesion of Bruckner’s later symphonies from the Fourth on, and in particular the Eighth (its “heavenly length” notwithstanding) and the Ninth; and so perhaps the use of the Carragan edition, which seems to restore a significant number of conventionally cut passages, was a questionable decision, pushing the work to over an hour in length.

Yet even if Bruckner the symphonist had not yet found a way to make the whole equal the sum of the parts, there are plenty of delights among the latter here, among them some unmistakable hints of Bruckner’s later style. Take, for instance, the gently rolling repeating theme in the strings that begins the third subject of the first-movement exposition, and the way Bruckner gradually builds a climax upon it, not to mention that movement’s Beethovenian coda; there is also the Andante’s lovely horn theme, not dissimilar to the adagios of the Fifth and Eighth in its hints of medieval Church modes. On the other hand, the distinctly Weberian elements of the finale may come as a surprise to those who have only heard the more famous Bruckner symphonies, but these bring their own pleasures, and even here the lyrical interludes are echt Bruckner.

Samuel Wigutow



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