Nathalie Stutzmann, who had conducted the National Symphony Orchestra last year, was back in her original vocation as contralto, singing Mahler’s Ruckert-Lieder. For someone who knows orchestras as intimately as only a conductor can, it did seem a little peculiar that there were issues surrounding her volume. In the creation of intimacy and in the evocation of emotional nuance, her voice possessed all the necessaries, for sure, and there were some lovely passages in these musical miniatures which exuded love, warmth and quietude. The third song “At midnight” conveyed a darker mood with its descending scales, into which she fitted well with a contained voice, hinting at big emotions.

Nathalie Stutzmann © Simon Fowler
Nathalie Stutzmann
© Simon Fowler

She sang the great symphonic Lied “I am lost to the world” last, and with a great sense of spiritual centredness, which was appropriate considering how Mahler himself described the song as representing his sense of self. The songs were certainly not over-sung, and that was a good thing. And yet, it was a small-space rendition, where singer and orchestra did not fuse into a seamless whole. Most notably, at the end of “At Midnight”, her deep, soft contralto was submerged completely by the brass and piano. I don’t think this was the fault of the orchestra. She could have given more, vocally. That said, there were intonation issues, in some places, in the woodwind section. On another note entirely, we would surely all have benefited from a translation of the songs’ texts, rather than merely their titles. The fewer barriers to accessing meaning, the better, for obvious reasons.

Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony spent a while in limbo between original composition (1874) and its first successful performance in Vienna (1881). But succeed it did, becoming the breakthrough moment as regards his reputation with the Viennese public. Dubbed the ‘Romantic’ and tacked with some medieval subtitles for the various movements, the programmatic content is, nonetheless, secondary. Maybe we should hear knights on proud chargers leap forth from the citadel in the first, or sounds of the hunt in the third, or ruddy folkish antics in the fourth, but it is hardly necessary to an appreciation of the work’s excellence: Bruckner added the descriptions afterwards, possibly just as a popularity ploy.

Tonight, the NSO gave this massive work a very satisfying performance. I like what I’m hearing from the NSO these days. They entered into the grandeur of Bruckner’s vision, sought to build his ‘cathedral of sound’ from the small tremulous beginnings of the first movement in a way that definitely convinced and often, indeed, moved. Christoph Eschenbach, in the twilight of his tenure here, was in expansive form. He has always been a good whip – to borrow British parliamentary terminology – his rigour is undeniable; but now there is more leeway given to those qualities that offset rigour, qualities like lyricism and grace and freedom. Playfulness, it is true, is still not his most natural musical mode, and whimsy is apt to come off a little heavy, but although there is a huge amounts of variety in Bruckner’s Fourth, there was little play, except at moments in the first movement, so we were not short-changed.

Particularly admirable was the creation – and I mean creation from the bottom-up – of orchestral volume. It is so important in this work to effectuate a convincing transition from the small-scale to the shatteringly massive. It is what makes for drama, excitement, the feeling indeed of transcendence. I really thought this was achieved tonight, especially in the brass. When it came to the massive passages, the sound seemed properly three-dimensional: it had depth and never became raucously over-drawn. The Scherzo of the third movement set off at an exhilarating speed, and there was plenty of fevered rapidity throughout. Eschenbach was particularly determined to signal different voices in the brass, showing his commitment to distinguishing lines here, rather than gathering everything into the mush of a late-Romantic orchestral mash-up. The Ländler-like Trio section, where a lilting spirit breathes, was not quite as indulged as perhaps it could have been, but the fourth movement was back on form, and opened onto a powerful finale, which brought not only the end of the performance but also the end of the season here in the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

Bruckner might be coming into his own. We’ve wallowed in Mahler-infested waters for such a while; now it may well be Bruckner’s turn. And based on tonight, I’m absolutely all for it. I will look forward to hearing more Bruckner from the NSO.