The National Symphony Orchestra has arrived back in the capital after what was, by all accounts, a successful European tour. Given pride of place tonight in the programme was the world première of Tobias Picker’s latest work, Opera Without Words, an innovative piece prompted and then commissioned by the music director of the Kennedy Center himself, Christoph Eschenbach. The success of this substantial new work – it runs at about 25 minutes – show just how fruitful such a connection has between between the New Yorker and the German. Picker conceived of an opera, based around five real-life characters in his life: the Beloved, the Minstrel, the Idol, the Gladiator and the Farewell. He went to the length of hiring a librettist, Irene Dische, and only later removed the words. (He has kept a copy of the opera which he is, at least in theory, open to having performed at a later date. ) Elaborate? Certainly. Gamey? Perhaps. Contrived? Perhaps also.

Christoph Eschenbach © Eric Brissaud
Christoph Eschenbach
© Eric Brissaud
But the conceit is nonetheless an interesting one, as the instruments take on the role of the voices, the score  still marked with multiple traces of the theatrical, such as passages marked “doting”, “upbraiding”, “self-righteous”, “aside to the audience”. Listening without the benefit of the score, one is left to oneself rather, but the liberty is not unwelcome. We get to enjoy very diverse orchestral colour, from muted strings to growling bases, from the piano to the whip. Kaleidescopic is the word that most readily springs to mind: less defined portraits and more a mesh of colour and tonal effect. The NSO gave it a handsome première.

As I listened tonight to Jean-Yves Thibaudet play Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major, I reflected on the fact that not all virtuosity looked or sounded the same. There is the very obvious kind: what Walter Scott might have called the ‘big bow-wow strain’, melodramatic, hair-flopping, swoon-inducing – Liszt’s own brand, undoubtedly – beloved of the concert-going populace everywhere. But there is another kind, no less real – a sort of discreet brilliance, an unshowy showmanship, if you will, and Thibaudet belonged to that refined school. Unfailingly fleet of finger and sure of touch, he nonetheless combined the virtuosic with an unmistakable grace, great warmth of tone throughout, and a sort of unpretentiousness which was quite compelling. This was most suitable for a concerto which Liszt himself thought of as ‘symphonic’, that is to say, a work which was more than a mere virtuosic showpiece.

Brahms Third Symphony is the most compact, that is to say the shortest, of his four symphonies, written rapidly over a summer vacation in Wiesbaden on the Rhine. The first movement Allegro con brio calls for an expansive tone in all its ambivalent major-minor tonalities and I thought the NSO were right on target here tonight, with a sound that swept through the whole orchestra from the front desks to the back. In the lighter, more lilting sections, it did feel a little lumpen, however. That magnificently moody Intermezzo – the Poco allegretto – a musical version of a lonesome Caspar David Friedrich landscape, although dare we accuse Brahms of anything programmatic? – was moody enough though not quite so magnificently moody as one might have liked.  But in all, this was a warm, emotionally true and responsive performance. 

One may have doubted the wisdom of following this remarkably complete programme, including that most highly personal symphony of Brahms, with his effervescent Hungarian Dances (3,6 and 10), but I suspect they were added to fill out the second half. Our musical palettes, I believe, were already sufficiently sated; but in any case, these party pieces were handled with good humour, vivacity and lightness of touch by the NSO and left the Thursday night crowd in great good fettle.