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2.12.05

Lured by Walton, Charmed by Chopin 

Ionarts' thanks go to the selfless Robert R. Reilly, music critic for CRISIS and author of the delectable Surprised by Beauty, who served ionarts-duty at the NSO on Thursday night and came away surprised.

Thursday evening’s concert with NSO, Leonard Slatkin at the helm, began with Schubert’s Overture to Rosamude as the curtain raiser. It was appropriately somber and then fleet, but served only as a decent warm up performance for the NSO because it was missing that bit of passion and sense of discovery that would have made it something more.

Strange. The opening to the Chopin Concerto No. 1 seemed to sing more that the Schubert had. The singing continued with entrance of the young Chinese pianist, Lang Lang. Chopin’s writing for orchestral accompaniment is sometimes dismissed as less than first-rate. One wouldn’t know it from the way the NSO played it. Lang Lang could not have asked for a better partnership for his finely nuanced, exquisite playing, particularly from the strings, which displayed the finest shading down to the softest pianissimo. Lang Lang, the NSO, and Slatkin went way beyond getting the notes right. This was a performance suffused with the breath of life. A standing ovation brought Lang Lang back for the Chopin Nocturne in D-Flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2 as an encore that dismissed any doubts that this man has poetry in is fingers.

William Walton’s First Symphony is a glorious blend of Jean Sibelius and Gustav Holst, plus high voltage electrification. The finest recording of it was made by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra back in 1966. It remains unsurpassed, including by Previn himself, who seemed to have mellowed by the time he made his second version for Telarc. One of the few recordings that came close to Previn’s achievement was Leonard Slatkin's, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1988, on Virgin Classics. On the evidence of last night’s performance, however, Slatkin, too, seems to have mellowed. Alas.

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W. Walton, Symphony No.1, Concerti, Sinfonia Concertante, A.Previn (1966 recording) et al. / LSO, et al.
The first movement should convey a blistering sense of forward propulsion and a barely constrained expectancy that bursts itself in the overwhelming climax. I missed the indispensable feeling of strain, as Slatkin seemed to search out the more lyrical moments. I was not gripped by what can and must be gripping music until the movement’s finale because Slatkin failed to ratchet up the tension sufficiently. The members of the orchestra should have been playing for their lives. One did not get that sense.

The second movement was much better in terms of the telegraphic intensity that this works requires, but it was catch-up work. The third movement played to Slatkin’s preference for gentler side of Walton. By the fourth movement, Slatkin had snapped everything into shape. I only wished he had played the whole work with a similar alertness and crackle.

So, the Walton was a mixed bag. There were too few times in the performance when I was listening to the music rather than to the playing of it. The orchestra was at its best when Slatkin tightened his grip, but seemed to be about to lose its way several times when the tempos slackened. The audience seemed very happy because, even in a less than great performance, it is clear that this is great music.

I came for the Walton, but it is the Chopin that I shall remember.

Repeat performances will take place today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM.

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