NSO From Inside Shostakovich to God’s Doorstep

United StatesUnited States Shostakovich, Bruckner: Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg (violin), Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), National Symphony Orchestra, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington, DC. 10.2.2012 (RRR)

Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No.1
Bruckner: Symphony No.9

On Friday evening, the National Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach repeated its program of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and the Bruckner Ninth Symphony. The evening served to underline the magnitude of the gift that Eschenbach has brought to Washington, and of the fine artistry of violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Right from the opening of the Shostakovich, Salerno-Sonnenberg made an emotional connection with the delicate tenderness of her playing and the slight tremolo she employed to enhance the melancholy of the lyrical line. She achieved a chamber-like sense of intimacy, almost as if she were playing in a string quartet.

available at AmazonDSCH, Violin Concerto No.1,
N.Salerno-Sonnenberg /
M.Shostakovich / LSO
available at AmazonA.Bruckner, Symphony No.9,
G.Wand / BPh

The orchestra, however, is not a string quartet. And the NSO’s playing was sometimes as extroverted as hers was introverted. This made for interesting contrasts but swamped her on occasion. Once they settled in together, the interplay was exquisite, including in the crazy, frantic music of the second movement.

The sense of interiority that Salerno Sonnenberg achieved in the third movement cadenza was extraordinary. Some of this music is rooted in Shostakovich’s love of Bach, and is every bit as moving as the latter’s Second Partita for solo violin. There are not many places in Shostakovich’s music in which he speaks as directly as he does in this cadenza, and Salerno-Sonnenberg gave him full voice with playing of breathtaking subtlety and spiritual resonance. While it offers ample opportunities for virtuoso showmanship, she chose the better part by staying completely inside the music. After the immaculate but wild Burlesca, Eschenbach brought the finale to a close in high spirits. The standing ovation that this performance received was one of the most enthusiastic I have ever witnessed at the Kennedy Center. It was well deserved.

Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony is this one of the summits of symphonic literature. Like most summits, it is a challenge to ascend. Bruckner engages in a series of buildups, arrested developments and suspensions, and enormous climaxes. Among the difficulties is not to let the music sag in between. This requires intense concentration and a keen sense of pacing, both of which Eschenbach possesses in abundance. He never surrendered the long line in the music to the abundant beauty.

After the magnificent opening statement, I briefly wondered whether a bit more subtlety was required. My thinking shifted after the first climax: to hell with subtlety. Eschenbach captured the dramatic essence of this exalted statement and put across the huge, voluminous, almost terrifying maelstroms of sound in Bruckner’s peaks. The pacing was brisk enough to sweep one along, but never rushed. It was a superbly well driven account of complete conviction.

Nor was it a performance devoid of nuance. I exaggerate for effect. The Ninth Symphony presents the unfolding of God’s awesome presence in sound, and this is no gentle thing. Bruckner understood that fear is part of awe and, as the tread of the Almighty approaches, we should tremble. This music should shake us to the roots of our being. It is a measure of Eschenbach’s and the NSO’s achievement that they reached very near to this experience. In short, this was the best Bruckner performance I have ever heard from the NSO. It would be unfair to leave out any section of the orchestra, but I must exclaim on the magnificent playing of the strings and brass. They were superlative.
Robert R. Reilly