Tonight’s programme opened with a charming work for strings entitled Orawa, composed by the recently deceased Wojciech Kilar. A work celebrating the folk traditions of the Polish highlands around the Tatra Mountains, its first performance here was alluring. Precisely conducted by Krzysztof Urbański, who has taken it upon himself to champion the works of Kilar, the work showed off the power of a contained palette: tempo and tonal shifts, the rhythmic repetitiveness were all finely rendered.

Krzysztof Urbański © Fred Jonny
Krzysztof Urbański
© Fred Jonny

Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococco Theme for Cello and Orchestra followed next. The title has long been something of a puzzle. It is fair to say that it is imbued with a Mozartian spirit: the Romantic orchestra is thinned out and heft is replaced by lightness, clarity and transparency. There are two versions of the work – the more commonly heard was the version edited by its first performance in Tchaikovsky’s absence; the original – the one played here – was reconstructed in the 1950s. From the opening variation, beautifully intoned, the cello was indeed in masterly hands. Johannes Moser was all that was most assured and sophisticated and he coaxed every shading out of the work. Particularly attractive was the intimacy of his relationship with the orchestra, especially the strings. There were some lovely antiphonal moments which made one think “this is what making music is all about: this is the definition of a creative working relationship”.

It’s hard to keep politics out of performances in DC these days. Before playing his ovation piece, Moser commented, with an equivocal grimace, that the city had a new tenant in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Then he added “the piece you are going to hear next is by Dvořák. [dramatic pause] He was an immigrant.” The audience loved it. Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor “From the New World” has become iconic in the classical American tradition, so much so that that a recording of it made its way into the Apollo II Mission to the Moon in 1969, courtesy of none other than Neil Armstrong. A legend of more doubtful veracity is that this celebrated work boasts African-American and Native American melodies, that it is truly a ‘product of the soil’. The legend seems to be more true in spirit than in the letter. Although Dvořák claimed to find all he needed for great and noble music in the “Negro melodies of America”, he would later say that it was merely their spirit that he tried to convey in this symphony, not the tunes themselves. It is an important corrective.

This performance was a fine evocation of this spirit. The first movement opened in a gently aloof way, Urbański caressing the sound, before the first short-lived tempestuous outburst. Urbański has a sensitive style which is most effective. He is painterly in his gestures, sophisticated and often restrained, letting sounds crackle around him, and extremely rhythmically involved. Particularly successful tonight was the shading of dynamics – not just in the extremes but in the inner range – the degree to which one mezzo-piano differed from another, in different circumstances.

The celebrated Largo second movement suffered somewhat from a clumsy  brass opening that didn’t sound at all stately, and the simple folk melody played by the English horn sounded just a tad more foot-draggingly dreary than thrilling. The Scherzo opened with plenty of verve and attack although there could have been more tension built up within the middle sections. I liked very much what Urbanski called forth in the fourth movement: there was scorching intensity, energy and passion. In short, good stuff.