Beethoven was hired to write the score to Goethe’s Egmont in 1809, the year French troops invaded Austria. The play was ostensibly about a different foreign occupation some 200 years earlier, of the Netherlands by Spain. But it was obvious enough to Viennese audiences that the real villain in the story was Napoleon. So it’s appropriate that the person waving the baton for the Egmont overture this week at the Kennedy Center is someone as bossy and short as Emmanuel Krivine.
The National Symphony Orchestra’s new music director Christoph Eschenbach is still in Paris, so far spending as much of his debut year not being in Washington as Bush did clearing brush on the ranch in Texas. So that leaves the NSO with another guest conductor, Emmanuel Krivine, who led the NSO last January in a production of all French composers. This time he is featuring the Germans, with a program that was well designed but hampered by impatient articulation and stumbling half-steps.
Arching his back and pumping his arms, Krivine led the NSO like a marching band. Thursday night’s performance felt rushed, particularly the first half, which presented two Beethoven works: the Egmont and his second piano concerto, with soloist Louis Lortie. This was pre-heroic Beethoven, when he was still jocking Mozart, and thus the tone was more cute than grouchy. But even the opener, a more soulful, middle period piece, lurched about with too much staccato to let the music breathe.
Lortie, for his part, did a fine job. The piano concerto offered him a chance to show off with a lengthy cadenza that approaches Stairway to Heaven and November Rain in terms of extended noodling. It was also an opportunity for gratuitous mugging—-smiling impishly, arching eyebrows, nodding for the allegro parts and shrugging for the adagio. (Krivine’s body language couldn’t be read—-despite standing on a platform, he was completely obscured by the piano lid.)
Things slowed down after intermission, with a pair of symphonic poems by Franz Lizst and Richard Strauss. Les Préludes by Lizst was a rollicking number that nevertheless fell flat. The horns, as the featured section, sounded tinny and warbled, and the cymbal-clashing middle left this reviewer cold. Strauss’s Don Juan was better. His sympathetic take on the Spanish lothario launched Strauss’s career around the same time he was being seduced into the cult of Wagner, which would eventually lead to an opportunistic if awkward relationship with the Third Reich. The orchestra spread out and relaxed a bit for the lush, sweeping piece that followed the subject’s exploits in chasing tail and getting in duels.
But too much of the performance felt like the orchestra was in a hurry to get home. Krivine’s sharp gestures and abrupt transitions rubbed off. By the time it had reached Don Juan’s concluding crescendo, the audience, too, was halfway to the shuttle bus.
The performance continues through this weekend, Friday, Dec. 3 and Saturday, Dec. 4 starting at 8 pm at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. $20-$85. (800) 444-1324.