The 85th season for the National Symphony Orchestra opened in the Kennedy Center last night, and featured the Washington debuts for both conductor Donald Runnicles and soprano, Olga Peretyatko. The program opened with Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, a satisfactory if not entirely triumphant rendition. For really outstanding Mozart, one can’t get it merely right, one has to be masterly. The celebrated opening to Mozart’s last and massively popular Singspiel (play with songs), for which the Viennese once queued three hours to be sure of a good seat, deserves no less. And the bold, decisive opening chords promised well. The articulation of notes – and how many flurrying notes there are in its fast fugal section – was not always as agile, as delineated as one might have liked. It felt a little tipsy, to be frank, with some scrambling to keep pace. But the more robust, fuller and slower theme was stated with conviction.

Olga Peretyatko © Uwe Arens | Sony Classical
Olga Peretyatko
© Uwe Arens | Sony Classical
Although the Four Last Songs are not, in fact, Strauss’ last songs (the title was a publishing ploy from Boosey and Hawkes), these well-loved elegiac works breathe a certain finality of intent: Strauss died the following year. On stage to render them was the Russian coloratura soprano, Olga Peretyatko. Her voice was an ample instrument for these highly melismatic (sometimes reaching ten notes to one syllable) songs, although it could at times have been fuller and larger. This is not the Strauss of those massively flamboyant and ardently strenuous tone poems, but a gentler, more resigned composer, with mere echoes of his former musical ways. At times, a more symbiotic relationship between orchestra and singer could have been achieved. They didn’t always come across as sharing the same aural (or emotional) space. But when they did, it convinced. In Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) for example, the violin solo movingly takes up from and later cedes the sad, far-distant melody back to the voice. This was an important moment to get right.

Im Abendrot (At Sunset) evokes Strauss’ more than half-century’s marriage to Pauline in its depiction of an old couple walking hand-in-hand, life-weary but still loving and facing peaceful death. At the final vocal question “Can this be death?”, the horn replies quoting Strauss’ Transfiguration motif from his great symphonic poem, written many decades previously. It is quite a lovely and meaningful musical memory for those who know the Strauss oeuvre intimately. There was some fine singing but not quite the hushed numinosity one might have hoped to feel to mark this moment.

The second half of the program had us drink Elgar neat. His Serenade for Strings in E minor was pleasing as the first of its short movements (Allegro Piacevole) describes that it should be. A gentle and genteel lyricism was well achieved here. What Evelyn Waugh calls “creamy English charm” is always very evident in the Elgarian oeuvre, to my mind, and it was so here. In the most substantial movement, the central Larghetto, justice was done to the maturity of the score: there was some nice dynamic shading, restrained and lush by turns, and a fine pianissimo at the end.

The first thought on hearing the Enigma Variations is invariably that Elgar must have had very delightful friends. With each movement dedicated to an intimate, identified by their initials in most cases, the whole is musical whimsy at its most endearing: fittingly the original ‘enigma’ hinted at by Elgar remains a secret. This is music written at the end of the Victorian period, but except for the throbbing of drums meant to evoke a steam liner in Variation 13, the age of steam and industrial toil is far removed. This music looks ahead to free-wheeling, carefree Edwardian England for all that it is fin de siècle: it premiered in 1899. Playfulness was captured especially in the mincing ladylike Variation 10 (Dorabella) and the helter-skelter evocation of a bulldog-falling into the River Wye and scrambling out again (Variation 7). “Nimrod” (Variation 9) was executed in suitably epic fashion, with a nobility of placing the melody which this most Beethoven-like of movements requires. The best was saved for last in the musical self-portrait, Variation 14. E.D.U was Alice’s name for her composer husband, and the joke is finally at himself: there is a march, two lyrical episodes and then a grand summation of self. Maestro Runnicles pummelled, pressed, and massaged the orchestra into a magnificent largeness of sound. Merely stepping up the volume won’t do: it has to be ample and full, a Falstaffian belly-laugh of musicianship.

An enjoyable evening, with the best wine (or Pimms?), as it were, at the last.

***11