Friday, November 6, 2009

NSO - Brahms & Prokofiev - 11/05/09

Conductor: Alexander Vedernikov
Brahms: C0ncerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 77 - Vadim Repin
Prokofiev: Symphony No 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 100

It seems like Brahms' commanding violin concerto is as popular today as it has ever been, and 10 days after hearing it in Berlin courtesy of Joshua Bell, Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic, I was no less eager to hear the Russian duo of Vadim Repin and Alexander Vedernikov take a stab at it with the National Symphony Orchestra on my first foray back in the Kennedy Center concert hall since my return. Brahms and Prokofiev seem to be a fashionable couple these days too, because the Russian composer whose Romeo and Juliet ballet score were the very last notes I heard in the Konzerthaus was on the NSO bill as well with his grand Symphony No 5. Not to mention that last season the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented the same Brahms' violin concerto with the same Vadim Repin right before... Prokofiev's 5th Symphony. The more programs change...

As one of the most daunting challenges in the répertoire, Brahms' violin concerto demands a wide range of skills from the soloist taking it on. Vadim Repin has never been lacking in technical skills or nuanced sensitivity, and those assets for sure give him a major advantage when tackling such a mighty Romantic composition. But yesterday while he definitely demonstrated sharp precision and exquisite finesse, I did not think that he gave the big sweeping passages the élan they needed to decisively rise and swell and carry us all away. Not being needlessly showy is of course a laudable decision, however, fire and intensity are also indispensable to breathe full life into a work begging for it, and there was just not enough of them last night to make this attractively refined performance a truly exciting one. I also have to say that after having experienced live music in many different venues lately, I suspect that the notorious acoustics of the Kennedy Center concert hall probably contributed in making the music occasionally sound lackluster despite the obvious commitment of everybody onstage. So that may also have had to do with the general feeling of having just witnessed a perfectly honorable achievement, yes, but not an all-around dazzling feat.
Things notably perked up with Prokofiev's richly emotional score which he dedicated to the spirit of Man. His Symphony No 5 was composed within a single month in 1944, and the long-coming fulfillment he was then experiencing personally and professionally certainly had a large influence on his more direct style that expertly combines darkness and tension with exuberance and happiness. The unabashedly joyous Finale aims at reiterating his faith in the human race, and in the right hands brilliantly concludes a thoroughly exceptional work. Accordingly, Alexander Vedernikov let the orchestra lose and even seemed to encourage them to splash around to their hearts' content, allowing for a rambunctious but highly enjoyable performance. Prokofiev would have been pleased.

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