Ohlsson, Malkki give Beethoven a new look

National Symphony Orchestra program creatively balances the new with the old.

Washington – While the National Symphony Orchestra’s (NSO’s) new music director, Christoph Eschenbach, fulfills some European conducting engagements, the orchestra is being led in concerts by a short-list of interesting guest conductors. The latest is up-and-coming Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, who is leading the ensemble this weekend in an odd yet interesting program of modern, almost-modern, and Romantic works including Magnus Lindberg’s “Parada,” an excerpt from Gustav Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony, and Beethoven’s classic Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 (“Emperor”).

By placing the popular Beethoven concerto—performed by a very popular pianist, Garrick Ohlsson—after the halftime break, Ms. Mälkki ensured the audience would hang around to listen to Mr. Lindberg’s decidedly contemporary 2002 composition as well as the opening Adagio from Mahler’s 10th, a challenging piece in its own right.

Susanna Malkki.

Susanna Malkki. (Credit: Simon Flowler.)

Mr. Lindberg’s “Parada” is essentially a tone poem inspired, oddly enough, by an exposition of rocks and other geological artifacts whose oddly disparate, random beauty fascinated him. Since it’s a challenge—except perhaps for Disney’s animation studios—to create stories or personalities revolving around a display of inanimate objects. Mr. Lindberg apparently chose to reflect the moods and impressions this exhibit inspired.

“Parada” itself is dominated by a slow, flowing tonal motif that’s occasionally overtaken by a faster, livelier assemblage of tones that bring the work to a dynamic climax before it once again subsides and fades in the distance. While the work is possessed of passion and movement, however, it lacks the kind of melodic component that still proves elusive in modern compositions.

While the fabric of Mr. Lindberg’s composition is interesting and generally palatable, “Parada” ultimately, to these ears at least, is yet another modern composition that goes nowhere and takes its time getting there. It has that familiar sound of a standard contemporary movie score that, unlike John Williams’ near-operatic film compositions, is content to serve as background noise without otherwise drawing much attention to itself. Mr. Lindberg is clearly an accomplished technician, but “Parada” is a work that doesn’t seem to go much beyond surface interest in the end.

However, the Mahler, which followed this work, proved an intriguing bit of programming as it reflected, in some ways, the composition that preceded it on Thursday evening’s program. Left unfinished at the composer’s death, the Adagio performed at these concerts was left virtually complete in manuscript and was intended as the symphony’s opening movement.

After Mahler’s massive choral 8th Symphony—perhaps the apotheosis of late-Romantic gigantism—the composer began to experiment somewhat with “expanded tonality” in his purely instrumental 9th. He apparently was beginning to sense, as did Schoenberg, that traditional Western tonality might have reached its limits in the composition of serious music.

(BTW, we’d intended to provide a review of an October performance of the 8th given by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Symphony at the Kennedy Center. But the Washington Performing Arts Society [WPAS] apparently couldn’t spare one of the many tickets that remained unsold on the day of its performance.)

Mahler’s journey away from traditional tonality becomes more pronounced in the “Adagio,” a generally quiet yet agitated exploration of dissonance and non-traditional modulations. Always interesting, yet at times frustratingly fragmented, the “Adagio” in general pits a quiet, slow, tonal fabric largely in the strings against scherzo-like outbursts from the rest of the orchestra, which—unusual for this composer—employs no percussion at all. And in this, the Mahler bears a striking resemblance to the structure of Mr. Lindberg’s “Parada.” Or, given the chronology, the other way around.

In other words, Ms. Mälkki opened Thursday evening’s program with an intellectually challenging “compare and contrast” opportunity, featuring works by two very different composers who are struggling with the same kind of compositional problem: where do you go with your music when you think you’ve reached the limits of the conventional?

Schoenberg, of course, provided one answer—serialism—which found favor in the academy and among musicologists but never among the public. At his death, Mahler was struggling toward the kind of solution that bent tonality without exactly breaking it, a direction later evident in the compositions of Zemlinsky and Korngold for example. Whereas Mr. Lindberg, whose compositional career began around the time serialism—aka “atonality”—was beginning to overstay its welcome, is at the other end of the spectrum, characterized by contemporary composers who are still trying to reconcile “new” music styles with attracting an audience.

Ms. Mälkki did a fine, energetic job bringing out the similarities and contrasts in these two very different compositions, particularly in the almost corrosive, dissonant brass outbursts at the very center of the Mahler “Adagio” although a few orchestral entrances didn’t seem quite precise. The NSO, in its turn, performed superbly, particularly in the delicate nuances of the Mahler.

The concert’s second half rewarded the audience with a trip back to tradition, starring Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in the solo driver’s seat. Longtime music critics like this one often dread yet another Beethoven 5 since they’ve heard so many performances of the work. Adding to the dread: this critic actually heard Leon Fleisher performing the work live at least twice with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Garrick Ohlsson.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson. (Cr. artist’s web site.)

This pairing was blessedly recorded, along with the rest of Beethoven’s piano concertos, by Fleisher and the Cleveland back in the 1960s. Still readily available after all these years, these performances are regarded by many as the gold standard recordings of these concertos. So what else is there to say?

Well, apparently quite a lot, at least as far as Mr. Ohlsson is concerned. While slipping on a passage in one or two instances, the pianist gave an intriguing and entirely unexpected reading of the concerto Thursday evening. While the opening movement was crisp, Germanic, and reasonably bold, it was the central “Adagio un poco mosso” (roughly, “moderately slow but with a little extra”) that proved quite a revelation.

Beethoven, perhaps the greatest musical figure the West has produced in 200 years, was a distinctly Germanic composer of many moods and approaches, often highly innovative but often brusque, crusty, and choleric. Yet to this writer’s knowledge, he’s never had the reputation of being a composer of dreamy, romantic music. Near our own time, that’s been more the turf of composers like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff. Or, closer to Beethoven’s time, the romance flowed from the compositional pen of Chopin.

Yet the Polish genius had only embarked upon his short, brilliant career in 1827, the year of Beethoven’s death. No one had yet encountered the younger man’s own unique talent for quiet romance and passion.

But Thursday evening, Mr. Ohlsson reversed this chronology in a way. His beautifully unexpected interpretation of Beethoven’s “Adagio” seemed to channel the romance, the longing, the love, really, of a haunting Chopin “Nocturne.” Paradoxically, Mr. Ohlsson put the Chopin into Beethoven Thursday evening, recalling in some ways the more poignant side of the German genius that can be glimpsed his own mysterious love letters. And the effect was mesmerizing, close to pure genius.

No one really knows how the concerto might have been performed in Beethoven’s day, so it’s hard to tell what’s “authentic” anymore. But Mr. Ohlsson gave everyone something to think about in his incredibly moving interpretation. Even as the piano part pivoted toward the concerto’s vigorous finale—there’s not a clean break between the two movements in the “Emperor”—one was reluctant to leave the pianist’s superb “Adagio” behind.

Maestra Mälkki and the NSO kept in respectful background for Mr. Ohlsson when required, while the soloist himself backed and filled, often glad to return the favor by weaving a shimmering tapestry of chords and passagework behind the orchestra when the ensemble took center stage. Yes, this performance differed from those marvelous Fleisher-Szell recordings. But it was also magical and new, and most definitely something to savor.

Rating: *** (Three stars).

Tickets and Information: There are still tickets available for tonight’s and tomorrow’s NSO performances, featuring guest conductor Susanna Mälkki and piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson. Click here for details and to purchase tickets.


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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