Ginastera - who pronounced his name with a soft, Italian "G" - is a composer who has suffered undue neglect since he died in 1983… and Maestro Slatkin is out to change that. Part of that was the programming of the Concerto for Strings
op.33. Leonard Slatkin, who passionately believes in this work, was not able to program this concerto for some time - for fear that people would not come and give the work its chance to be heard. So he finally packaged it into a program he could be certain to draw the audience to the Kennedy Center's Concer Hall, Ginastera or not. The lure, musically or otherwise as unrelated to the Concerto for Strings as they are to each other (‘unrelatedness' being a virtue
(!) of good programming, according to Slatkin), in this run of performances are Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the Second Piano Concerto by Saint-Saëns.
The Ginastera concerto opens with Variazioni per i Solisti
, a movement dominated by the exchange between five soloists and the string section's ‘Greek chorus'. A solo violin lament of serene nature achieved by sometimes abrasive means contrasts with soft-as-can-be two-note sighs among the strings. Then the solo and theme is passed around the principle strings: The cello (David Hardy) next, followed by the second violin (Marissa Regni), then viola (Daniel Foster), finally double bass (Robert Oppelt). Those in the audience who had to be convinced of the (great) merit of the work might have followed the first movement with curious lack of comprehension. Despite quartertone experiments its character is still resolutely tonal - mildly stretching the capacity for dissonance of conservative ears.
The second movement slowly creeps to a point of penetration of the open mind; playful and coy all along. The third movement Adagio angoscioso
calmly gathers the energy it needs for release in the stunning Finale furioso
- the only movement that is not derived from Ginastera's Second String Quartet which served as the (much adapted) model for his op.33. Indeed, there are plenty passages that sound like an orchestrated string quartet - with more than just a dose of Bartók here and there. Those above mentioned ‘conservative' ears may, for all the work's charm, fail to be won over upon first hearing… even after the finale, which should
do the trick, though. A beast of fury, driving the music to a climax and near-breaking point with its irregular rhythms and sheer volume. Why the result was much more muted than expected - lack of enthusiasm on part of the conductor was certainly not the problem - I do not know. To hear the warm (if neither unanimous nor enthusiastic) reception it received, however, was heartening.
André Watts is a very familiar name to American audiences (and the audience in this region might know him from his years as artist in residence at the University of Maryland, not just his famed, prodigious youth) but has so far eluded my ears, both on record and in concert. Saint-Saëns' Second Piano Concerto op.22 with the NSO put that omission right. Big, bold, and straight as an arrow - not only in the entry but throughout the concerto: Watts played in a manner with which neither flaw nor faults could be found. He played up the entertainment value here and there (entertainment is what this concerto is about, after all) - but also had a refreshing matter-of-factly touch to bring to it. All five Saint-Saëns piano concertos are nice to hear and worth exploring; none of them are bestowed with that nebulous label of "great", though. One rides along on the surface of the prettiness and the stormy passages and the bubbles… but unless one is among the performers, the experience is a very passive one. Those who love the Ginastera might find the piano concerto to merely dabble along; those who raise an eyebrow at the Argentine's concerto will likely embrace Watts and Saint-Saëns as feel-good type of classical music they seek out.
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - "Beethoven's version" this time… since Gustav Mahler's (admittedly fairly minor) adjustments to the score were used the last time Leonard Slatkin conducted the Beethoven symphonies with the NSO. The Maestro, who was at the time harshly criticized in the Washington Post for his choice of the "Mahler versions" (somewhat beyond what the significance of that choice merited, in my opinion) defends that choice in the program notes (he may still feel the sting) and mentions the adjustments now made to the work; both in accordance with- and deviation from- the latest Jonathan Del Mar edited Bärenreiter
score. At least seven Beethoven cycles are by now based on this edition: Abbado/Berlin, Barenboim/BerlinStaatskapelle, Dausgaard/Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Haitink/LSO, Rattle/Vienna, Vanska/Minnesota, Zinman/Zurich. But even these conductors pick and chose what they do alter or do not alter, so when Slatkin brushes the hoopla around tempo or double-woodwind or taken or omitted repeats off with "there is really no need to go into more detail", he may sound defensive but is absolutely correct. Or, as he grumbled at me, slightly annoyed, in an interview I recently had with him: "They are all
And Beethoven it was with the NSO: Brisk, energetic, and ironfisted in the first movement, with deliberate delicacy, a dry gait in the second, temperately paced with subtly in the third movement before that great release into the joyful sound that is the finale. Save for the third movement (Allegro
), the whole affair was crisp, fast, but not hurried. The playing was very fine and amounted, in an understated way, to one of the best performances I have heard from the NSO under Slatkin this season. The performance will be repeated tonight at 7PM and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM.