The Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda has held the podium in Washington since 2017. Last year his contract was renewed through 2027, and many hope he will stay longer. Combining his responsibilities with the directorship of Zürich’s opera house, Noseda has proved a consistently valuable asset to Washington’s arts scene.
The National Symphony continues to shine, despite a bizarre initiative to save paper that reduced the customary printed program to a single subpar sheet. Its new year began with the appointment of Jean Davidson as executive director, who arrived from the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The first concert under her leadership paired Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with his mentor Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony, known as the “Rhenish” after the composer’s felicitous visit to the mellow Rhineland region with his new bride, Clara Wieck.
It might have made chronological sense to program Schumann’s earlier symphony first, but Brahms’s concerto requires a soloist, so convention required its forward placement. The young South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, the 2015 winner of the international Chopin Piano Competition, returned after a few years of absence from the NSO to deliver an exquisite, crystalline performance. Having recorded both of Chopin’s concertos with Noseda, Cho was a natural fit for this tortured selection, which Brahms composed while Schumann was in a sanatorium between his suicide attempt in 1854 and his death two years later. Brahms, then only in his early twenties, took his mentor’s illness and death hard. The protégé left no description of the mood his concerto was meant to convey, but it begins stormily, continues in a calm adagio, and ends in a turbulent finale. It is a tribute to Cho’s skill that his playing never lost focus. Noseda delivered a powerful orchestral reading, the instruments thundering when necessary and then calming down before diving back in. Cho’s jaunty encore, Brahms’s Capriccio in B Minor, seemed an odd choice given the concerto’s emotional turmoil, but was played well.
Whatever good feelings were roused by the Capriccio became bittersweet in the second half, in which Noseda led an accomplished reading of Schumann’s Third. The symphony’s numbering is misleading, since chronologically it was the last of the composer’s four works in the form. What we know as his Fourth Symphony was really his second; it was numbered out of sequence due to its later publication. For all its winsome meditations on the Rhineland, and its stunning success under Schumann’s baton upon its premiere in 1851, the Third Symphony starkly brings to mind that just three years later the composer tried to take his own life by jumping into the very same Rhine.
Noseda led a majestic reading of its first movement, marked lively (lebhaft in German) to set the symphony’s general tone, relying on his excellent brass section to deliver a forceful but precise interpretation. The next movement, a moderato (sehr mässig), takes the jaunty form of a ländler, a country folk dance, before pulsating into an adagio (nicht schnell) where a scherzo might normally appear. Here a smoother brass section took form as the conductor gave a welcome Italianate touch to the continuing journey. The three trombones that open the solemn (feierlich) fourth movement anticipate Wagner’s use of the instrument in the “faith” leitmotif of his final opera, Parsifal, which he called a “staged sacred festival play” (Bühnenweihfestspiel). Schumann’s mystical inspiration for the symphony was the memory of a Roman Catholic service in Cologne Cathedral, during which he and Clara witnessed an archbishop’s elevation to cardinal. Noseda handled it a bit more abruptly than it deserves before resolving the symphony with its finale, a reprise of the lively introduction reliant on his superb horns.