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Classical concert round-up: NSO's 'Missa Solemnis,' Poulenc Trio, Europa Galante

The last several days have been something of a blur, running from performance to performance (or portions thereof), leaving me little time to pontificate about them. I will try to make up for some of that now.

Let me concentrate here on the classical concerts I caught during this particular whirlwind, which started with the National Symphony Orchestra's presentation of Beethoven's epic "Missa Solemnis" Thursday night at the Kennedy Center.

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This piece tends to divide listeners, even those who consider themselves major Beethoven fans. OK, so it is a bit unwieldy, long-winded and theatrical (Verdi isn't the only one who can be accused of writing an opera in the guise of a liturgical work). But count me among the believers.

I think even skeptical types might have been tempted to convert after experiencing the NSO's account with music director Christoph Eschenbach on the podium, and featuring the superb Choral Arts Society of Washington (Scott Tucker director) and vivid, well-matched soloists.

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The soulful power of the "Missa Solemnis" could be felt at every turn, along with ....

the many features in the score that point the way to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Eschenbach, who has something of the mystic about him, burrowed into the score with contagious devotion. He unleashed truly explosive power in the most dramatic passages, such as the opening rush of the Gloria, and the emphatically hammered outbursts of "Amen" in the Credo.

When the music turned inward, Eschenbach ensured poignant results. He lavished care on dynamics and phrasing at the start of the "Et incarnatus est" section of the Credo, for example, and drew an extraordinarily dark, inward sound for the "passus at sepultus est" line.

The Sanctus and Benedictus inspired particularly radiant results, with the chorus at its most sensitive, and beautifully molded singing from the solo quartet -- soprano Erin Wall, mezzo Iris Vermillion, tenor Richard Croft, bass Kwangchul Youn. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef played the long solo in the Benedictus -- one of Beethoven's most astonishing and compelling touches -- with admirable purity of tone and gracefulness of phrase.

There were ragged edges here and there in the performance, to be sure, but nothing got in the way of the overall expressive force, the sense of involvement from conductor, orchestra and vocalists alike.

On Sunday afternoon, I caught some of the Poulenc Trio's stylish concert at Goucher College, presented by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra.

Ensembles of oboe, bassoon and piano are not exactly plentiful, since there is not a massive amount of repertoire for such a combination. But this particular group -- oboist Vladimir Lande, bassoonist Bryan Young, pianist Irina Kaplan -- knows how to make the most of this niche.

Beethoven's Op. 11 was delivered with great character; the songful phrasing by the winds in the Adagio was one of the highlights.

Andre Previn's Trio from the 1990s effectively blends jaunty and smoky jazz with richly harmonized lyricism. The first movement could be the soundtrack to a comic silent film, right down to spicy woodwind trills for the sight gags. A slow movement, haunted by a descending motive, and a virtuosic finale complete the vibrant score.

The Poulenc Trio delivered it all with technical poise and potent phrasing. Kaplan revealed particular flair for the jazziest flourishes.

Also on Sunday, Europa Galante, the brilliant early music ensemble from Italy founded and led by violinist Fabio Biondi, gave a performance for the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

It is amazing to think back to the first wave of period instrument groups a few decades ago, when things could be so musicologically strict -- and, often, technically erratic. Today, once-outlawed vibrato is allowed to sneak in for expressive underlining, and tempos are allowed to breathe.

Europa Galante demonstrated terrific flexibility on such matters, while maintaining excellent intonation and smoothness of blend, in works by Vivaldi, Couperin and Mascitti on the first half of the program. Early music-making doesn't get much better than this.

Biondi's glowing tone and lively phrasing proved a constant delight, and there was beautifully nuanced playing from his colleagues, especially Giangiacomo Pinardi on theorbo.

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