One of my earliest experiences with the NSO was a concert I attended during the pre-Eschenbach days shortly after I arrived in DC, perhaps the spring of 2009. I went because Brahms was on the program, and, while not necessarily expecting Brahms at the level of what I had just come from in Chicago, was pretty taken aback by what I encountered. Though hardly counting myself as the most critical ear when it comes to orchestral music, it was impossible to miss the out-of-whack balances, tinny sound, and lack of excitement on the stage or in the hall.
I'm happy to say that, 7 years of NSO concert-going later, that evening feels like a distant memory; whatever you may think of Eschenbach, his years in DC have been a boon to the band's overall sound and consistency. However, after hearing both Symphonies 1 and 3 under Eschenbach and the first piano concerto under Osmo Vänskä last night, there is still work to do in the Brahms department.
To be fair, the problems in the first piano concerto were mostly localized in the first movement, that ever ambiguous, halting statement Brahms saw fit for his first orchestral utterance. Conductors must work minor magic to make sense out of its melodic fragments and capriciously shifting colors and Vänskä just never found a firm footing from which he could build momentum with the orchestra. He was not helped by inelegant contributions from the horns and a general lack of commitment coordination in the strings.
Vänskä seemed palpably relieved to move onto the Adagio and elicited some beautiful, very focused, piano sounds from the strings, though perhaps slowing things down to excess at some points. The Rondo was a confident romp, with exciting precision in the exposed passages for the strings, though winds and horns never quite caught up.
Russian Nicolai Lugansky, whom I've never heard before, offered an engaging, measured reading of the solo part. Apparently people refer to him as "cold," most infuriating of all adjectives for a pianist, but his temperament seemed just right for the Brahms, which easily suffers from additional melodrama. See for instance that first entrance, in which the piano answers the orchestra's outsize turmoil with an anemic, meandering little figure. One could easily get caught up in the throes of the anguished orchestra part and ham this up, but Lugansky's reserved introduction was the more unexpected and haunting choice. While clearly possessing the technical chops for flashy virtuosity where needed, Lugansky prioritized intimacy and "Brahms-sized" emotion throughout with appealing results.
I was mildly considering bailing after the Brahms, but was glad I didn't, as Vänskä turned in a winning Beethoven 'Pastoral' Symphony after the half. Vänskä looks to be one of those consummate micromanager conductors, tirelessly trying to tune each dynamic and color as the orchestra hurtles forward, and the NSO seemed to relish the challenge. Vänskä carefully developed the constituent parts of the Allegro, highlighting delicate dynamic gradations and building up a tight transparent sound in the climax. This exacting approach never devolved into preciousness though, and Vänskä was able to pull out a lusty, go-for-broke storm section, and a warm, well-earned Allegretto.