Yes, the scheduled conductor cancelled, and yes, with the sky still shimmering with light at 9 p.m., it feels rather late in the season to be going to the orchestra. But it was a surprise and a bit of a disappointment to find the Kennedy Center Concert Hall so empty last night. Mikko Frank may have bailed on the National Symphony Orchestra, but soprano Karita Mattila showed up and she came with the ever popular Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss.
Granted, the original program was more interesting. Frank, a Finnish conductor with a reputation for being both brilliant and erratic, had programmed Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Manhattan Trilogy. And rather than the Four Last Songs, Mattila was supposed to sing Strauss’s much more rarely heard Three Hymns, Op. 71. Both would have been first-time performances for the NSO. But when Andreas Delfs replaced Frank on the podium, the orchestra retrenched, substituting over-exposed for obscure Strauss, and music of Delius for Rautavaara.
No matter. A good, evening-long wallow in late romanticism is never to be sneered at. But it wasn’t that sort of evening. There was a palpable lack of chemistry between all three musical forces—conductor, soloist and orchestra—that played out in performances that were often approximate and generally formless.
Delius’s “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” is warmed-over Wagner served in aspic on Wedgwood china, a polite, sedate, rather silly piece that serves as an interlude in the 1907 opera A Village Romeo and Juliet. Wagner, constantly referenced is also thoroughly tamed in the opera, and the music sets a mood without saying anything precise or memorable (stage direction: “Sali takes Vrenchen in his arms and kisses her long and tenderly. They rise and continue their way. The curtain falls…”) Move along, nothing to see. And the opera is pretty much the same.
It was, however, the best played music of the evening. Delfs doesn’t bother with big ideas, or forging an interpretation that spans an entire piece, though he gives lots of extraneous information, which makes him temperamentally suited to Delius. He also had the good sense to stay out of the way of the woodwinds, which are given quiet, gentle and forgettable melodies that filter through the soundscape like little rays of late afternoon sun coming through a forest canopy. The oboe playing was especially lovely.
The Strauss, which included a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra, didn’t fare so well—and the freedom Delfs gave in the Delius was retracted in the Strauss (especially in the violin solos), with regrettable results.
The accompaniments to the Four Last Songs didn’t do Mattila any favors and there were moments of substantial disagreement about the pacing of the music. The horn melody that is supposed to carry the second song off in the arms of Morpheus was too loud, too assertive, and anything but a lullaby. More destructive to the cycle’s collective impact was the chord that accompanies the singer’s final note of “In Abendrot,” a deliciously foreign harmony set to the word “death.” It should be a whisper but the orchestra responded with something bigger and blunter, which meant that any mystery Mattila hoped to muster with the poem’s enigmatic last question—“Can this perhaps be death?—was lost.
But Mattila wasn’t really finding much to communicate in the poetry. This was a singer’s performance, not a textually driven one. And it wasn’t particularly well sung either. Mattila sounded dry, even hoarse in the opening of the first song, and the voice, once warmed up, wasn’t consistent throughout its range. Top notes were clean, precise and very white or blank, in their tone. Lower in her range, it’s a different voice, and a more charismatic one. In the middle, she was frequently covered by the orchestra, with the blame mostly Delfs’s.
Worse, Mattila’s phrases were so undifferentiated and generic that Strauss’s individual notes were lost in long, loose approximations of the general line. Was that a half step? Or a whole step? Or a minor third? It would be nice to hear Strauss’s thoughts—and Hesse’s and Eichendorff’s poems—for once, and not the all-purpose, sumptuous, voice-as-instrument version that has come down to us since Jessye Norman recorded her aberrant but gorgeous dramatic soprano remix of the piece. Mattila, unfortunately, approached the piece with a more lyric instrument, but without the sweetness, precision or clarity of a smaller, lighter, more incisive voice. It was, perhaps, an off night.
It was definitely an off-night for the Also Sprach Zarathustra. Delfs gesticulated frantically and bounced on the podium, but to little effect. The reading was a straight-through, just-the-facts account that sounded under rehearsed and disengaged. Strauss’s humorous self-deflations, the vulgar references, the disjointed waltzes, the sudden climaxes that serve like a magician’s distraction to hide the wild and unexpected turns of the musical path, none of these registered.
For all that, the NSO is sounding better, section by section, than I’ve heard it in a long time. The woodwinds have new strengths, the horns, though aggressive to a fault, were more accurate than I’ve heard before, and the strings were warmer, more even and cohesive. But the problems with the NSO have never been at the level of individual players. It’s a question of rehearsal, discipline and the all important presence (or absence) of a conductor who can forge this group into a real ensemble. They didn’t have that last night, and the results were as usual.