Finnish conductor John Storgårds. Photograph courtesy of the Kennedy Center
John Storgårds, the chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, made his debut at the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night, with an absorbing program of descriptive music set in Northern climes. Some suggested Storgårds should have swapped parts of the program with pieces planned for later in the month for homogeneous nationalistic programs, but that would have destroyed the opportunity to compare Scandinavian and Russian composers, and particularly their orchestration, in varying degrees of crudeness and refinement. Storgårds brought incisive ideas and a driven, impelling beat to a program that—with the exception of yet another performance of Jean Sibelius’s violin concerto—combined pieces not heard from the NSO in a decade or so.
Storgårds opened each half with a coloristic tone poem, beginning with Musorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Storgårds didn’t direct the more refined arrangement by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, familiar from countless Halloween concerts, but rather chose the composer’s original orchestration—last played by the NSO under Osmo Vänskä in 2002. Musorgsky had nothing like Rimsky’s skills as an orchestrator, but this version was more barbaric, folksy, and rustic (Rimsky and others made the work so cinematic), and Storgårds lashed the piece forward, in spite of struggles in the violins with the masses of notes (and for not always great effect, because of the weakness of the orchestration). Anatoly Lyadov’s The Enchanted Lake, op. 62, had not been heard from the NSO since the 1990s: Storgårds led the NSO in a diaphanous performance, giving a sort of Debussy-esque transparency to the work’s lush Wagnerian harmonies. David Hardy’s cello solos warmed the opening sections, but the work was allowed to seethe gently. When it did stir, it provided washes of pale watercolor.
Gidon Kremer, last heard in this area with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2005 (and not with the NSO since 1982), gave an odd but still satisfying rendition of Sibelius’s ever-present violin concerto. Known for his idiosyncratic interpretative style and outspoken views, Kremer is unlikely to give a performance that doesn’t defy expectations. In spite of some minor technical shortcomings—Kremer rather consciously used sheet music as he played and barely scraped his way past some of the more demanding passages, especially the virtuosic codas of the outer movements—there was much to admire in his Sibelius. Kremer gave a gypsy flavor to some of the themes, adding little slides and unusual tone color. The sound of his low playing on the G string of his gorgeous and full-throated Amati violin, made in 1641, was vibrant and elemental, at times more like a viola (in a good way, of course). For the most part, Storgårds was sensitive to keeping the orchestral level out of the way of his soloist.
One of the highlights of the last season from the NSO was a performance of Carl Nielsen’s fourth symphony, led by Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard. How fortunate then to hear, so soon after, an equally rare and equally inspiring performance of the Danish composer’s Fifth Symphony—Leonard Slatkin was the last to conduct it, in 1998. Where the Inextinguishable features a pair of dueling timpani players, the un-subtitled Fifth Symphony is driven by the martial beat of snare drums, one of which is heard from off stage. It is an austere work, its pulse animated by minimalistic ostinati: For example, the violas harp on a very Philip Glass-like minor third through much of the first movement, which passes briefly into the woodwinds, part of a cranking up of tension. The blast of the snare drum, which crashes into the movement more than once and with little subtlety, heralds a shift into a sardonic march, with the grotesque flavor of Shostakovich. The uneasiness abates only momentarily, amid avian swirling in the woodwinds, as the horns and trombones call to one another, echoing off cliff sides. Another anxious theme, all repeated notes like the chirping of a cricket, unsettles the conclusion of the first movement. Although the work is unfamiliar, the NSO players played with cohesion and precision, giving an almost Mahlerian surge of shining Romantic strings to the fugal passages of the transcendent second movement. After these performances of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, one can only hope that the NSO follows through with a complete Nielsen symphony cycle in the coming seasons.