With Friday’s concert marking the one-year anniversary since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the National Symphony Orchestra’s programming of the first half highlighted composers who had either escaped or worked their way around Soviet Restrictions of the 20th century, sounding a glimmer of hope in grim times.
While György Ligeti was one of the most influential avant-garde figures of the later part of the 20th century, his Concert Românesc owes more to his use of Romanian folk-tunes than to post-modern techniques. Composed in four interconnected movements, it charmed on many levels under the guidance of conductor Elena Schwarz. The shy, vernal folk melody on the violins in the opening Andantino was answered by delicate woodwinds creating an intimate soundscape. Schwarz imbued the Allegro vivace with punchy rhythmic drive, while the liquid sounds of the cor anglais and the lament of the horn in the third movement evoked a peaceful atmosphere, interrupted by ripples from the timpani roll. The finale featured muttering cellos, chirping piccolos and frenetic scales all round, with Schwarz bringing it to a brilliant end.
Aram Khachaturian, like Ligeti for a time, lived through restrictive Soviet censorship, where he held the role of secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers. His Cello Concerto in E minor (1946) marks the third concerto Khachaturian wrote for members of a well-known trio, following the Piano Concerto (1936) and the Violin Concerto (1940), and was dedicated to cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.
Right from the word go, Leonard Elschenbroich made his cello sing, making sure the opening passionate notes were laden with vibrato. There was satisfying dialogue with the orchestra too: Schwarz knew how to balance the forces of the NSO as to support him without drowning him in moments of mounting excitement. He attacked the virtuosic section at the end of the first movement with no little vim and vigour. In the Andante sostenuto, Schwarz set up a peaceful lilting accompaniment that contrasted with Elschenbroich’s dark, sultry melody. The latter’s arpeggiated section, treacherous for tuning, was successfully navigated. The jagged, jutting rhythms of the final Allegro was played with great panache with the NSO’s passionate interjections.
Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor is underpinned by the dialectical urge to imbue the work with the Czech spirit of freedom and the composer’s hope that “this Czech music will move the world”. The NSO and Schwarz gave us a resounding rendition. There was great tension between the searing opening D minor chords of the Allegro maestoso and how it spilled over into B flat minor. Schwarz allowed the NSO to wallow in the sumptuous melody in the major key before letting the brass erupt with ferocity. The first movement ended in smouldering menace. The sultry harmonies of the second movement were evoked on silky strings, Schwarz stoking the warm, heartfelt melody until it burst forth, illuminating the victorious Czech spirit before closing with a peaceful sigh. The conductor’s balletic gestures aided in bringing the Scherzo to the fore while all the time keeping a tight rein on the rhythm. Scarcely pausing, Schwarz launched into the tragic turmoil of the finale, the opening enveloped in a miasma of mystery. Once again, she seized on the sharp rhythms to propel the music forward. At times, the music was edgy, at times tense and fierce before culminating in a brilliant and majestic climax.