Barry Douglas (piano), NSO/Gerhard Markson


Symphony No 3 - Schubert

Piano Concerto No 2 - Beethoven

Symphony No 6 (Pastoral) - Beethoven

With popular repertoire and a popular soloist in Barry Douglas, the National Symphony Orchestra had a full house for its Schubert and Beethoven programme at the NCH on Friday. Of the two conductors most closely associated with the orchestra, it is the principal guest conductor, Gerhard Markson, who clearly has the greatest affinity with the music of the classical period. He sets sensible speeds, asks for clarity of articulation, and, if you watch his gestures closely, clearly indicates a detail of interpretative nuance that doesn't as yet fully find its way into the orchestra's playing.

It's not just a matter of refinement. As well as the indicated highlighting, hushes, expectancies, the delicacy of contour in his gestures says more to the eye than the playing does to the ear. And, given the relish he provides for the eye, the ear can expect a lot if the orchestra eventually gets around to playing what he conducts.

In the meantime, there's still a great deal to enjoy in his work. Schubert's youthful Third Symphony suffered rather from the ongoing failure of the orchestra to master the necessary balance between wind and strings in this sort of repertoire. The wind, as usual, too often tended to get lost under the weight of their more numerous colleagues.

A more musical equality prevailed in this regard in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, carried off with a nice fluidity and with the requisite sense that fresh angles were continually being found on material that was being re-visited. The familiar imbalance between strong first and weak second violins did, however, rather undermine some of the important interplay.

Douglas's first entry in Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto came as quite a shock, as he set off at a tempo well above the one already established by Markson. Douglas, who can sometimes seem businesslike and formal in Beethoven, was here exactly the opposite, soft in tone, sometimes caressing, and playing almost counter to conventional expectations in the manner of an arch-romantic. Unusual as the playing was, it was never less than engrossing.