20 November, 2009

Concert Review: Philadelphia Orchestra Eschenbach

Concert Review: Philadelphia Orchestra - Christoph Eschenbach

November 19, 2009, Carnegie Hall
Mahler Symphony No. 7

For some reason I always run into concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra and concerts by Christoph Eschenbach (sometimes together) whenever I'm in NYC. This time, I was not able to get tickets for the BPO/Rattle Brahms cycle, but this concert, coming hard on the heels of the BPO, was oddly satisfying. I may not always like Eschenbach's often wayward and aloof ways, but I have high regards for his considerable strengths, chief amongst which the ability to re-think warhorses and cultivated imagination.

The Philadelphia is a staggeringly good orchestra these days (has always been in fact). It really is a pleasure hearing them play anything. That aside, perhaps their Mahler credential is not as strong as some of their brethens, like the CSO, NYPO, even BSO. In the vast canon of recorded Mahler, the Philadelphia had only a small share and even fewer that are distinguished, but that is changing due to the Ondine recordings (cycle?) conducted by Eschenbach.

Their burnished tone is not just confined to their famous strings, rather to all sections. Despite their powerful playing, nothing grates the ears, and that can be a little disconcerting in Mahler, where you likely want to hear struggles. Add to the equation the cool Eschenbach, and the enigma of the 7th symphony, this was not a concert for those who want pathos, or at least a healthy dose of sturm und drang. Although it took a while for the players to warm up to their best, under Eschenbach's gripping direction the symphony unfolded fluently. Sometimes the tempo was too fast for the music not to sound dispassionate. An example was gearing up for the last part of the sprawling first movement, at a tempo that was surely allegro, but not ma non troppo. Similarly, the Rondo-Finale was taken at a clip, with occasionally odd rhythmic pointing, so the conclusion was resounding enough but stripped of some triumphal grandeur. The story-telling here portrayed mother nature as finicky, even idiosyncratic, but not at all malignant. Perhaps that is fitting enough for a symphony Mahler calls his happiest.

Eschenbach brought out a wealth of details along the way. This worked best in the three inner movements, where I savored every second of the enchanting playing. They not only played with great individuality but they listened to each other and sometimes it felt like chamber music on the grand scale, not a bad way to play Mahler's reflection on nature and man.

When it ended, the fellow behind me said: "...(Eschenbach) is all nuts in his head, but how he made them PLAY!..." The appluase was tumultous. The hall was packed and the balcony was stuffed by young students. How refreshing. Mahler's future is bright. A wonderful concert.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's review of the concert one day before

The NY Times review

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