Tonight was our second evening of “Shakespeare at the Symphony”, at least the substantial part of the program. The first part owed nothing to the Bard, being Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. Emmanuel Ax gave an elegantly modest interpretation: Beethoven wearing Mozartian kid-gloves, you might say, in a performance notable for silky smooth runs and a delightful clarity of execution. Indeed the first movement owes a particular debt to Mozart so his reticent interpretation was particularly fitting there. Still, one desired a little more drama at times, a little more attack, this being Beethoven, after all. In the third movement, the orchestra, leading off with great panache, lent him some rocket-fuel: one could see that he was taken by and caught up with their energy, a lovely sign of relational dynamism happening before our eyes and ears.

Juraj Valčuha © Vermont Classics
Juraj Valčuha
© Vermont Classics

Under the baton of the rising young Slovakian conductor Juraj Valčuha, a baton so adamantly treated that it got caught in the microphone overhead in the first movement, from whence he soon retrieved it, the NSO was in its element, performing energetically and convincingly throughout. I thought this especially true for the three Shakespearean-inspired works. To pick three of the 20,000 musical works which are said to be based on the Bard’s oeuvre is no easy choice, but Erich Korngold’s Much Ado about Nothing Suite, Antonin Dvořák’s Othello and Richard Strauss’ Macbeth provided ample opportunity for musico-literary luxuriance. Not that the choice to semi-stage excerpts from each play before the performance was necessary or even desirable. I had some questions about this last week and even more so this week where the attempt seemed tokenistic and to be frank, a little gimmicky. I don’t think, on the whole, it added value to the music, which must, as ever, be the litmus test. In any case, the music itself shone out.

We are happily witnessing a Korngold revival these days and this particular work, drawn out of incidental music for a performance of the play in Vienna in 1919, has its charms , not least in its percussive effects and the lushness of its “Hollywood” strings (although Korngold had yet to move to the States, so the label, though excusable in retrospect, is entirely anachronistic). Valčuha had the NSO evoke the adventures and misadventures of that most celebrated of Shakespeare’s sparring partners, Beatrice and Benedick, and although I might have asked for a little more rhythmic snap in the movement entitled “March of the Watch”, the whole was pleasing.

From there, we descended into the great tragedies. Dvořák’s Othello was the third of his farewell ‘overtures’ (essentially tone poems) that he presented in 1892 before leaving Europe for American shores. It is the darkest and most tragic of these works, and reminiscent of Wagner, to whom he was explicitly indebted for the magic sleep motif to convey Desdemona’s rest. The NSO gave a most convincing performance – from soft, muted pianissimos to fulsome sweeping sounds. It was the kind of music that took one places.

Strauss’ Macbeth was his first tone poem, and as regards audiences in his lifetime, the least successful. The tone poem was, as yet, an art he was to hone; the elements here, somewhat rough-hewn, are signs of things to come. But it is, in its own right, an interesting and evocative work, and the NSO did it full justice. Macbeth is more of a character portrait than a musical representation of the events of the drama, and we caught that: from the brash opening and ambitious swagger of the Thane of Cawdor, to the sinister plots evoked in dark basses, jagged chords and a particularly complex harmonic language. The character’s unravelling – with dissonances so rapacious that they could, in his word ‘devour each other’ - was dramatically and excitingly captured.

Whatever about the token acting, we were in no doubt that in listening to this kind of music, played as it was, we were witnessing Shakespeare on stage in auditory form. It was good to be here.