Of Love Stories and Cautionary Tales
The Kennedy Center
02/14/2019 - & February 16, 2019
Richard Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
Hector Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette, Orchestral Suite from the complete Dramatic Symphony, Op. 17
The National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)
For Valentine’s Day, Noseda (here concluding his winter residency in Washington) and the National Symphony Orchestra offered a program built around the theme of doomed lovers. This all but guaranteed a selection of colourful and lavishly scored Romantic repertoire, and between this and the lack of a guest soloist, the evening could be seen as something of a showcase for the NSO. From this perspective, the opening Wagner excerpts counted as a qualified success. The strings are neither lush nor dark enough to be ideal for Wagner, and in Tristan especially some sweetness helps to take the edge off of some of Wagner’s most decadent yet searingly intense music, which its composer feared if performed well would drive audiences mad. To their credit, however, the strings displayed impressively tight ensemble, not to mention power when called for, and the performance as a whole achieved a sustained “singing” intensity. (Having an experienced opera conductor in the form of Noseda on the podium couldn’t have hurt.) If Noseda is able to cultivate over time a richer and more colourful tonal response from what is already (under the right leadership at least) a highly musical orchestra, it may prove a real force to be reckoned with in the German Romantics.
Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini is a work far more extroverted in its drama and expression than the Tristan prelude—hardly surprising given the former’s depiction of passionate lovers condemned to the flames of Dante’s Inferno rather than to wallowing in Wagner’s Schopenhaurian pessimism. Perhaps this is why I found more enjoyment in the sheer musicality, and often fire, of the playing Noseda elicited here. And although one might have asked for just a little more incisiveness at times, the technical security of the playing was consistently impressive. What is more, it was fortunate in such bombastic music to hear a generally well-behaved brass section, robust but not raucous.
The main presentation of the evening was the orchestral suite from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet. Although the original score supplements the orchestra with chorus and vocal soloists, the hour’s worth of purely orchestral music played here represents more than half of the work. As Noseda noted in his colourful spoken introduction to the performance, it is indeed the orchestra that Berlioz makes to bear the brunt of the drama, although I would add that the instrumental suite—originally extracted, according to Noseda, by Dmitri Mitropoulos—necessarily omits some rather lovely vocal music from the first act in particular.
What of the performance itself? Here the playing was not quite so striking for its polish as it had been before intermission; every section of the orchestra struggled with intonation at some point or another, although this is rather easy to forgive in light of, for instance, the brutally exposed passages for the brass and string choirs, respectively, near the beginning of the piece. On the whole everyone met the challenge gamely, and the enthusiasm and overall cohesion of the playing more than made up for the occasionally evident sense of struggle. Furthermore, even if the NSO is not yet a particularly idiomatic Wagner ensemble, their rather bright if somewhat diffuse sound (at least in the strings) struck me as being nearly perfect for Berlioz. Noseda appeared to especially relish (as do I) the second-act music for the Capulets’ festivities, which could be straight out of an Italian opera overture and here came across with a satisfying blend of weight, warmth, and propulsion. If the Queen Mab Scherzo was more gentle and lyrical than skittering or quicksilver, it was nonetheless of a piece with Noseda’s sweeping yet sensitive view of the work as a whole—not a bad way to bid farewell to Noseda for the winter.