A greater work by a lesser composer and a lesser work by a greater composer made for a most unusual and intriguing evening at the Kennedy Center last night. Gianandrea Noseda led the National Symphony Orchestra through its first ever performance of Liszt’s “Dante Symphony” and a curiosity from Rossini’s fallow late period, the Stabat Mater. Joining them in both was the excellent University of Maryland Concert Choir under Edward Maclary.
Liszt’s omnivorous artistic appetite encompassed extreme virtuosity, religion, literature, and visual art, and he never stopped searching for new means of expression. This symphony premiered only two months after his still-larger “Faust Symphony,” both attempting to use the orchestra to paint the images and characters of the underlying works. But the true test of time for any score tied to an externality like literature, dance, legend, travelogue, or what have you, is whether it is musically meaningful or logical on its own. The Strauss tone-poems or Stravinsky ballets can be thoroughly enjoyed without any knowledge of their scenarios, and I would say the same for the “Dante Symphony.” It is most compelling in its opening Inferno movement, avoiding trite effects like snarling diminished-seventh chords, setting forth a wealth of dark and darker themes, but with contrast and color. The imagery of the second part -- Purgatorio – doesn’t hold anyone’s interest like Hades does, and here the music sometimes lapses into the jejune. The chorus and solo soprano join in for the brief concluding Magnificat, where Liszt’s penchant for angelic textures finds the perfect setting.
Noseda led the NSO with vigorous confidence, and the players seemed to enjoy digging into the unfamiliar score. Strange instrumental colors like a (barely audible) harmonium and solo bass clarinet added to the novelty. Liszt certainly wrote a lot of banal music dressed up in keyboard pyrotechnics or orchestral fripperies, but the “Dante Symphony” is one of his strongest efforts, and it’s amazing that no conductor ever brought it to NSO audiences before.
A few important composers petered out relatively early, or lived many years without writing much of anything, like Sibelius, Elgar and Copland. Rossini lived into his mid-70s, but basically ended his career at age 37, writing only a few minor pieces thereafter. The two main exceptions were both sacred works; the Stabat Mater, and the Petite messe solennelle just before he died, the famous epicure and bon vivant perhaps seeking absolution for his earlier lifestyle.
Rossini’s genius for opera, did not channel perfectly into the religious sphere. Unlike Verdi, whose Requiem called forth some of his deepest musical utterances, the older composer here seems a bit removed from the sufferings of Christ’s mother at the cross. One is nonplussed hearing “Her soul, sighing, anguished and grieving, was pierced by a sword” set in a jaunty, A-flat major march. He only seems to settle into the tragic mood in the final three (out of ten) numbers; the piece ends with a glowering double-fugue, which likely inspired Verdi to do the same 32 years later.
The performance was heartfelt and propulsive. Rossini, even when stepping uncertainly, is part of Noseda’s musical DNA, and the Italian maestro drew top-level playing from the orchestra. The soloists were all quite good. Mezzo-soprano Chiara Amarù displayed remarkable power throughout her range, though the sound wobbled at times; soprano Erika Grimaldi and bass Marko Mimica were both firm and pleasing. In the most operatic number, tenor Michele Angelini kept the expression within pious boundaries while still giving fullness to the writing. His climactic high D-flat had a little bit of sand in it, but it was still clean and thrilling.
Kudos, especially to the Maryland chorus. In Quando corpus, the dynamic control was spectacular, and the rhythmic clarity and diction in Amen would have put many professional choirs to shame. The standing ovation at the end was at least as much for them as anyone else on stage.
I have heard the NSO under every music director other than its founder Hans Kindler, and I have to say that Noseda is bringing it to rarefied artistic planes; he is the finest musician they’ve had since Antal Dorati.
The program repeats Friday, May 17 at 8:00 pm. Tickets and information available here. Unexpected Italy, Part 2 is May 30 - June 1st. Tickets here. Both programs are part of a larger Italian culture festival taking place at the Kennedy Center through the rest of May. Learn more here.