It’s almost a cliché to sit smugly in a 21st century theater or concert hall enjoying a work that some original critic destroyed to his everlasting infamy. And audiences at this week’s National Symphony Orchestra concerts have every right to enjoy that sensation as they hear Tchaikovsky’s wildly virtuosic Violin Concerto in D Major. The work’s 1881 premiere generated one of history’s most notorious musical pans when Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick declared that it “stank to the ear” because it required the violin to be “beaten black and blue.”
But I’m actually going to cut poor Mr. Hanslick some slack. For my money, it really is no fun to watch even a massively talented soloist have to sweat and suffer to perform a piece like this. And the Tchaikovsky violin concerto can be performed that way, like a titanic struggle against the composer’s wishes.
Or it can be performed the way violinist Arabella Steinbacher did on Thursday evening with the NSO, with so much ease and panache that at the end it looks like she could do it all over again.
Ms. Steinbacher brings simply the most extraordinary command of bow-work to the task at hand. Her virtuoso entrances typically began with a raised flourish of her hand that seemed to get daringly higher and higher throughout the concerto. In passages that require the violinist to play rapid staccato notes that are too fast to change bow direction, she bounced her bow against the strings as if it were no more strain than sending pebbles skipping across a pond.
Various races from the low to high notes of the violin that make other violinists look like they’re going to need rotator-cuff surgery were simple flicks and changes in bow angle in Ms. Steinbacher’s hands. Her playing is so ridiculously stylish that at various points I had the impression that the bow could fly out of her hand like a baton, make 2½ revolutions with a reverse twist in the air, and land right back in her hand and she’d continue without missing a beat.
In his violin and piano concertos, Tchaikovsky didn’t bother holding back at the end of his first movements just because there were two more to go. At the gigantic conclusion of the violin concerto’s first movement, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall audience collectively said “the hell with convention” and not only broke into huge applause but also saw half the audience rise to give Ms. Steinbacher a standing ovation.
Major kudos to NSO Music Director Christoph Eschenbach for stepping back and letting the moment “ride” before the audience calmed down and the concerto could continue. How great it is for instrumental classical music that there’s somebody who can literally stop the show!
If there’s any kind of quibble with Ms. Steinbacher’s style of live performance, it’s that one could wish for a little more development of the first and last notes of major passages with a touch more sweetness and vibrato, especially on final high notes. This does come through in her recordings and could easily be present in her remaining two performances of the concerto Friday and Saturday night.
Ms. Steinbacher does have one of the most wonderful tones on the low G string of the violin of anyone on the international concert scene. What can come across as graininess in other virtuoso violinists’ hands is a marvelously present and clear sound in the low tones that helps “set the ear” for the fireworks to come.
Maestro Eschenbach paired the violin concerto with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, the two pieces having been composed within the same year. The Fourth Symphony is an absolute cornucopia of themes and tunes that show Tchaikovsky at his masterful best and easily conjures up analogies to The Nutcracker suite.
The third movement features the entire string section putting their bows down and plucking their instruments in rapid swells and retreats. The fourth and final movement is a showcase of spectacular orchestration pitting racing strings against declarative brass calls. Of special note was flawless playing by the NSO’s French horn section from start to finish.
Before Ms. Steinbacher’s concerto, the NSO opened the all-Tchaikovsky concert with a lesser-known work called Fatum, Poeme symphonique that is one of many commentaries by major composers from Beethoven forward on the theme of “fate.” Some of the percussion effects in this piece ring a bit too long and almost annoyingly in the Concert Hall’s sharp acoustics, compared to the dramatic “choking” effects that Maestro Eschenbach perfectly pulled out of the percussion section in the Fourth Symphony. But the piece was a nice introduction to Tchaikovsky’s more specialized repertoire set against two of his masterworks.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
National Symphony Orchestra: Fantasy & Fate: Tchaikovsky Masterworks: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Symphony No. 4 /Arabella Steinbacher, violin, plays the Violin Concerto continues tonight Friday, January 30, 2015 and tomorrow Saturday, January 31, 2015 at 8 p.m. at The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall – 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 444-1324, or 202-467-4600, or purchase them online.
Arabella Steinbacher’s website.