WASHINGTON, December 7, 2012 – Under the baton of guest conductor Hans Graf—currently the music director of the Houston Symphony—the National Symphony orchestra’s current Kennedy Center series concert is, in a way, a survey course in Polish or Polish-themed classical music traditions. From Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto #1 in E-minor, Op. 11—performed with the orchestra by young virtuoso pianist Yuja Wang—to Witold Lutosławski’s challenging Musique funèbre, and with Tchaikovsky’s “Polish” Symphony sandwiched in between, Thursday night’s concert proved an intriguing journey through Poland’s evolving national spirit through music.
Maestro Graf led off the evening with the Lutosławski piece, last heard in concerts here way back in early 1971. Commemorating in a way the upcoming centennial of the late Polish modernist’s birth in 1913, the NSO’s performance of his Musique funèbre (1954, later revised), written for strings only, was an interesting choice for this program. In the first place, it clearly demonstrates the composer’s fondness for his own peculiar twist on serialism. Secondly, it represents his return to his more favored compositional style after years of political repression, courtesy of Stalin and Poland’s Soviet oppressors at that time. And finally, as if all this weren’t complicated enough, this work represents Lutosławski’s musical reaction—an homage, really—to the memory of Béla Bartók, the Hungarian master composer who had died an exile in the U.S. in 1945.
The musical liberation from Stalinist oppression is evident from the first bar of this work. It’s clearly modern, something the Soviets, and particularly Stalin, routinely despised, preferring instead for Eastern Bloc composers to crank out reams of phony, faux-folk patriotic tripe. Composers who failed to deliver were banned or worse, a treatment best exemplified by the career trajectories of Shostakovich and Prokofiev in the U.S.S.R., but which also dogged the career and freedom of other composers like Lutosławski.
But, interestingly, this work, while primarily atonal, does not bother to follow Schönberg’s strict rules. Rather, it toys with the 12-tone row to the point that, while still occasionally grating, the music actually resembles traditional tonality for the most part, rendering it distinctly modern but also quite palatable. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the fact that the composer is offering the work as a remembrance of his late Hungarian musical colleague, who also bent the twelve-tone technique to suit his fondness for his national folk music.
Passages of Musique funèbre are clearly inspired by Bartók’s approach and style as is this work’s story arc, a lament that builds, in several parts, to a screeching climax before subsiding again into its metaphorical grave. It’s a lament not only for a musical career sadly cut short by political events, which exacerbated Bartók’s already poor health. But it’s also a parting shot at the Soviets for their routine oppression of virtually all the Eastern Bloc’s most important composers.
Under Mr. Graf’s baton, the NSO’s string sections performed passionately and well, giving this complex composition as good a performance as one is likely to hear.
Following the Lutosławski, the NSO rolled out the Steinway concert grand for the Chopin concerto. It’s a well-loved work, although it hasn’t been performed here by the orchestra since 2005.
Both Chopin concertos (the First, oddly, is really the composer’s second) don’t give the orchestra much to do, something critics have always loved to harp on, but it’s no matter. Chopin, a formidable if somewhat retiring pianist himself, preferred the salon and the solo piano to the concert hall, so it’s not surprising that both his concertos are really extended piano solos with a supporting, but not dominant, orchestral fabric running in background.
Countering the complaints as well, some delightful interplay between the piano and solo horn, bassoon, and flute does occasionally occur, brightening the moment with an occasional musical surprise. Bottom line: both Chopin concerti have been concert hall staples for a good 180 years now, which certainly must prove something.
This critic’s favorite of the two happens to be the No. 1—a bit bolder and more sophisticated than No. 2, which often gets the better grade. The first movement’s penultimate section, dominated by a leaping, almost stride-bass actuated by rhythmic trills, is quite unusual. The opening of the second movement in muted strings is pure Romantic sensuality while the piano’s undulating figures against the backdrop of the strings is sheer perfection. And the bouncy final movement is the perfect countermeasure to the previous two.
We’ve heard this concerto many, many times and still regard performances by that old Romantic warhorse, Artur Rubenstein, as among the best and most authentic. The key to performing most of Chopin’s piano music successfully is the development of a sixth sense for fishing out the primary musical line and presenting it in a bel canto style.
As an opera lover particularly fond of Bellini, Chopin as a composer generally wrote his music around a clear melodic line, which he intended to be “sung” by the pianist in the purest fashion. In an otherwise extraordinarily sensitive and elegant performance, however, Ms. Wang seemed on more than one occasion to neglect this approach, allowing the bass line to overcome the tenor or alto voice or permitting the orchestra to wash over her playing entirely.
Perhaps Ms. Wang made a choice here to be a bit more generous to the orchestral parts. But indeed, that’s not a problem in this concerto as, in particular, the conclusion of the second movement requires it. But for the most part, the piano needs to stand out in this concerto and on several occasions it did not.
It’s interesting to contrast Ms. Wang’s performance with those of Rubenstein’s generation. Those old Romantic barnstormers would drop buckets of notes on a given night, but they knew their product well and delivered the goods for the most part. We’d say that Ms. Wang’s technique, even at the age of 25, is likely a significant step up from that generation. So for many it will be a coin toss. She performed the Chopin flawlessly. But it would have been even better with a touch more fire and a lot more bel canto. One opinion, anyway.
As a finale, the NSO and Maestro Graf cranked out a crackerjack performance of Tchaikovsky’s still relatively unknown Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29, commonly subtitled “Polish” for its vigorous polonaise-style finale—the symphony’s unconventional fifth movement.
While this composer’s 4th, 5th, and 6th symphonies have achieved the greatest popularity, the third is well worth the more occasional looks that it gets in most concert halls. (This NSO performance is its first since 1968!) The symphony’s outer movements (first and fifth) are downright exciting, already exhibiting the signature Tchaikovsky elements of Russian folk style and cannon-like codas. And the quirky middle movements, slow and fast alike, hint at more drama to come with their odd accents, unusual string patterns, and abrupt surprises.
The NSO tucked into this one, giving it a genuinely thrilling performance and earning accolades from an enthusiastic and admirably quite full Concert Hall. It was a really nice performance all around.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars out of four.)
Tonight (Saturday, December 8) at 8 is your last chance to catch this interesting concert. If Polish-themed music is your bag, this is the ticket. Visit the Kennedy Center and the NSO’s box office by accessing the KenCen’s main website here.
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