“Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern,” Oscar Wilde once quipped: “one is apt to grow old fashioned quite suddenly.” The Polish composer, Krzysztof Pendercki has deliberately embraced and then retreated from the avant-garde in the course of his career, a play of allegiances that has kept his audiences guessing and his music very much alive over six decades. He self-consciously describes his own trajectory of musical composition in Homeric terms, involving both an Iliad and an Odyssey – a youthful rebellion and period of aberration followed by a mature homecoming, a return to tradition. But the tradition rediscovered is neither populist cliché nor rehashed unthinking conservatism. The impulses – creative imperatives indeed – to both old and new are profoundly acknowledged in his 2001 work, Concerto Grosso for 3 Cellos, given its first NSO performance tonight.

Christoph Eschenbach © Eric Brissaud
Christoph Eschenbach
© Eric Brissaud

Loosely referencing Baroque form (featuring a small solo group with ripieno orchestra) and a classical sinfonia concertante, this work is nonetheless one of a kind, with no formal break between its six interwoven sections. NSO cellists Steven Honigberg, James Lee and David Teie formed the trio of soloists, doing double duty tonight by slipping back into the ranks of the orchestra after intermission, a slyly pointed riposte to our all too easily-assumed dichotomy between ‘headline’ soloists and ‘mere’ orchestra members.

There is something of the night about this work. Although the middle section alone bears the label Notturno, the ambience pervades the whole: it veers swiftly, brutally even, from subdued foreboding to anguished agitato, from barely incipient to fully-realized nightmares. In short, there is nothing pretty at all about this work, written at the cusp of the new century, and thankfully, we did not get pretty. Honigberg, consummate musician that he is, made the voice of the cello sound unutterably lonely at times, like a human cry for help, and then again, feral as a wild creature, as he frontally attacked the instrument with raw ferocity. He was joined by Teie’s more elegiac cello voice and the softer voice of Lee, the latter sometimes a little too safe, too much in the background, it must be confessed, for such an expressionist work.

Percussive forces came into their own in its course. The full use of their effects – for Penderecki calls upon bell tree, celesta, glockenspiel, marimba, suspended cymbal, tam tam, tambourine, triangle tree and tubular bells, as well as the usual drums and harp – lashed us out of complacency, and gave this work a strikingly individual character. To sustain all these dark emotions in music and to do so over a lengthy period (the work runs to 35 minutes) to a mostly unfamiliar audience –a chirpily conservative Saturday night crowd who’d come principally, one suspects, for the Beethoven – is an art in itself and was triumphantly achieved here. The coda, an unexpected resolution of sorts, very faint and faraway, has the first cello (Honigberg’s) reach its highest register, transcending itself, so that if one closed one’s eyes, one could almost hear, instead, a violin.

Everyone has an opinion of how best to interpret Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor; indeed if we are to take Schnabel’s dictum to heart that it is “better music than it can ever be performed”, then we are fated to perpetual dissatisfaction. The solution is, of course, to pursue an interpretation fearlessly, forget the cranks and trust to pluralism, which is, in effect what the NSO did tonight. Eschenbach’s geometric style of conducting is suited to the unrelenting massiveness of the work, to the fierceness and abruptness of its dynamics and rhythms. He is not afraid of force, neither gesturally nor musically; sforzando being one of Beethoven’s most characteristic features, this is a good fit. One got the impression that the maestro was speaking his native musical tongue. He has a particular whip-crack left-hand gesture to indicate a change to a more lyrical passage; it’s so brisk and lacking in self-indulgence that the orchestra aren’t always as speedily responsive. The finale had plenty of drive, a laissez-aller that was mostly tense and taut, with panting strings and the always striking piccolo, trombones and contrabassoon. Even if the whole did not quite set in motion “the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror” as Hoffmann felt it should, there was nevertheless plenty of Stürm und Drang in the rendition.

Both works were preceded by Johann Strauss II’s Overture to Die Fledermaus, thrown off as a dazzling teaser for what follows in this much-loved ‘operetta to end all operettas’, although tonight a pertly ironic placing, considering what did, in fact, follow. The rendition, truth be told, was somewhat on the heavy side, lacking in aristocratic nonchalance and heady frivolity. The very geometry and forcefulness that works well for Eschenbach’s Penderecki and Beethoven does not sit quite as happily with Strauss. It was all rather too Prussian: Vienna in 1874 seen through Bismarckian opera glasses perhaps. Too much strutting about in curaisser’s uniform; not nearly enough flirtatious dancing and champagne. There is, at times, a vital importance in not being earnest, as the NSO must realize.

Still, a largely pleasing night at the Kennedy, and particular credit for exploring the Penderecki.