The cycle continues. Such seemed to be the case on Thursday at the Kennedy Center, where noticeably more seats that usual remained open for an NSO program that made the rest of us feel a bit greedy for hoarding all its rewards.
The star of concert that night was firebrand Lithuanian violinist, violist and conductor Julian Rachlin, who nearly set off the smoke alarms with a fiery centerpiece run through Tchaikovsky’s preternaturally demanding “Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35.”
But the highlight of the evening was Milan-born maestro Gianandrea Noseda’s canny sandwiching of the concerto between two of his favorite composers and countrymen: Ottorino Respighi and Alfredo Casella. It is a programming strategy he has deployed before to good reception, as when he filled the same sandwich of Italian composers with Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” in 2019.
Respighi, whose short 1906 piece “Burlesca” opened the evening, is hardly obscure. My ears are still ringing from hearing the New York Philharmonic blast his crowd-pleasing “Pines of Rome” at David Geffen Hall’s opening night earlier this month. But vast amounts of his oeuvre remain largely undisturbed by orchestras.
And though it is a dangerous game to try to divine precise historical reflections or revelations from the music of any given period, in Respighi’s music (especially early on, following his studies in Russia with Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov) you can pick up on a transitional tension between eras, and the composer crossing it like a bridge.
Its opening streaks of horns and flutes (both beautifully played throughout) give the sensation of broad brushstrokes, and as the orchestra emerges to fill in the colors, it is easy to situate Respighi’s music in relation to the postimpressionist visual art of the time, its soft-and-hard contrast of colors and textures here and there hinting at Fauvism. “Burlesca” was short, sweet, instantly entrancing.
Rachlin took the stage to excited applause and instantly set about earning them. He strolled through the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s 1878 concerto — a gantlet for any virtuoso — like it was his own backyard. It was a familiarity that gave his performance an airborne ease throughout, but that also authorized what was not the cleanest path through the concerto I have ever heard.
At times, Rachlin’s balance between tune and tooth tilted a bit too hard toward the latter, and a few of his highest notes flew off like bottle rockets. To be honest, I didn’t care much. Rachlin is a wonder to watch and a thrill to hear. His periodic twisting to face the other violins served a reminder that there were two conductors onstage, but his dialogue with the orchestra through the first movement remained crisp and satisfying, though they came a little unscrewed from each other in the third.
He brought electrifying precarity from one acrobatic solo to the next, the NSO swooping in to chill-inducing rescue several times. And his cadenza teased time itself — he played it with a clawing wit — one could hear anew why it made so many monocles drop when Adolph Brodsky premiered it in 1881.
(The intended original soloist and dedicatee Leopold Auer, appreciative as he was, responded to the concerto with a resounding nope. “On closer acquaintance with the composition, I regretted that the great composer had not shown it to me before committing it to print,” he told a music magazine in 1912. “Much unpleasantness might then have been spared us both.”)
Beautiful bassoons and oboes opened the second movement, the slow poke of the horn a touch too insistent, and Rachlin offered his softer side. His reading, more of a telling, was lyrical and wonderfully expressive, wandering into sublime conversation with the woodwinds. When the orchestra snapped-to for the sudden barging in of the finale, Rachlin really leaned into the vivacissimo of the Allegro. Here, a thread of melody must stay intact while simultaneously catching fire. Rachlin lit it like a fuse.
He made its dance passages rapturous, Noseda bouncing on the podium, gathering building currents in his arms. He beautifully navigated its famous high-wire act (which pitches a folk melody into the stratosphere) and the somber pre-departure solo. But it was his final sprint — the frenzy of those last two minutes — where the temperature of the room went up a couple of degrees.
After a trio of ovations, Rachlin retook the stage to offer a contemplative reading of the Sarabande from Bach’s “Partita No. 2 in D minor.” A fine foil to his performance a few minutes prior, he etched each line with attention and exactitude, the violin here and there seeming to gasp for breath in his hands.
Compared with Respighi, Casella is far less of a household name, in part because history shooed him to the side for his identification with the Italian fascism as early as 1926, despite the threat the party posed to his own Jewish wife and their daughter. (They would eventually split up and go into hiding separately at the homes of friends.) Casella’s cultural nationalism played a large part in his fervent revival of Vivaldi’s music in the 1930s. It even took him to Washington in the summer of 1934 to research and reproduce manuscripts by Vivaldi and other masters of the Italian Baroque like Luigi Boccherini and Muzio Clementi.
Noseda has played a large part in restoring Casella’s reputation and recovering the substantial amount of his music left unheard. He has recorded four volumes of Casella’s orchestral works with the BBC Philharmonic, as well as the composer’s 1932 opera “La Donna Serpente” with the Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Regio Torino. And over the past eight years (even before he began as music director) he has introduced Casella’s “Elegia eroica” and his second symphony into the NSO repertoire.
Casella’s “Symphony No. 3,” composed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and premiered in 1941, is a four-movement, 40-minute (or so) symphony that embraces the scale of Mahler and the harmonic tensions of Bartok but, as Noseda put it in his opening remarks, also has an “Italian flavor supervising everything.” A shadow relentlessly stalks the symphony as it moves, a “bitterness” Noseda suggests presages World War II.
For a piece they have never played publicly, the orchestra sounded comfortable and alert, but also attuned to the unique sensibilities of this piece. Where Respighi channeled the softness of Impressionism, Casella conjures a less-forgiving Futurist palette: harder edges, steeper inclines, glass and steel. Special props go to trombonist Kevin Carlson, who deftly delivered solos with a warm golden glow and splendid control.
The richness of this symphony is its both-ness: its pull between unabashed beauty and encroaching ugliness. Casella spent two formative decades in Paris (where he landed at age 13 to study at the Conservatoire), and you can hear some of the same Impressionistic gestures at work. Its buoyant grandeur could call to mind Sibelius’s No. 2, premiered four years earlier.
There is also an industrial churn to the work that introduces itself in the first movement, as though the symphony wants you to know it is a machine and we are all inside of it. The presence of this “engine” never quite goes away: Even the softest, most sentimental-seeming moments seem urged along by a sinister momentum. The second movement feels like a brief respite, gorgeously sculpted by Noseda from beds of reaching strings and lurking woodwinds.
A bulldozer of a scherzo intensified what was a lingering menace, and the fourth movement rondo released it from its cage. It is a movement so full of surprises I kind of don’t want to tell you anything about it, apart from it is the point in the piece that most clearly announces its symphonic scope and psychological depth. Casella may be an unfamiliar name, but his music — the sound of a world on the precipice — hits closer to home than you might guess.
“Julian Rachlin plays Tchaikovsky Noseda conducts Respighi & Casella” repeats Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.