Eschenbach and the LPO – 19th May

Photograph of Christoph Eschenbach by Aralee Dorough

Nymphea Reflection [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Lang Lang (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestraconducted by Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 May, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The final London Philharmonic concert featuring Kaija Saariaho, the Orchestra’s “Composer in Focus” this season, featured a work whose antecedents go back to 1987’s Nymphea for string quartet and live electronics. Nymphea Reflection (2001) is not merely a transcription of that earlier work, but a selective reworking of six episodes – heard in sequence, expanded in content and enriched in texture, so that a radically new piece is created in the process. Whatever the validity of the water-lily image invoked by the composer, the sense of an image experienced in different dimensions was certainly borne out by the music.

The glistening sonorities of the opening ’Sostenuto’ lead effortlessly into a driving ’Feroce’, though it is maybe a miscalculation that the remaining four sections proceed with pauses – lessening the overall coherence of what, in its follow-through of incident, should be an integral design. Moreover, after a ravishing ’Dolcissimo’, the ’Lento espressivo’ that follows marks time a little too readily before the climactic intensity of the ’Furioso’ and the veiled catharsis of the concluding ’Misterioso’. In the quartet original the whispered rendition of Tarkovsky’s poem “Winter’s Day” makes a magical impression as heard through electronic diffusion; here, the result was rather less atmospheric.

Not that this was not the fault of the LPO players, nor the adroit balancing of timbral contrasts by Christoph Eschenbach – who encouraged the sometimes reticent-sounding strings to give of their best in a lucid, controlled and keenly projected performance. Saariaho can indeed feel pleased with the orchestra’s advocacy over the course of this season.

The previous concerts featuring Saariaho’s music had both programmed it in the context of music appropriate to her aesthetic. No such connection was evident here, though this pairing of two staples of the repertoire worked better than might have been expected. The much-lauded Chinese pianist Lang Lang set about Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto as if determined to overcome its war-horse associations. The opening melody was shorn of grandiloquence, and throughout the lengthy first movement, Lang Lang – eagerly abetted by Eschenbach – kept to a freewheeling expressive rubato. Fine in principal, but passagework was often skimped – few of the upward or downward runs were played at all accurately – and the coherence of Tchaikovsky’s admittedly sectional design was too often sacrificed to a ’live for the moment’ adrenaline.

There were some good things in the following two movements: a magical lead-back to the main theme of the ’Andantino’ – albeit after a prestissimo central section where speed outpaced subtlety – and a hushed expectancy as Eschenbach steered the orchestra into the concerto’s closing peroration, the ’big tune’ benefiting from a flowing pace. Overall, however, this was a performance that too often forced expressive contrasts to the point of caricature. Lang Lang received something of an ovation, and responded with one of Liszt’s Schumann transcriptions – though your reviewer didn’t stay to find out which one.

Brahms’s First Symphony, which Eschenbach conducted from memory and whose interpretation of which might be distinguished as strong and secure – whether in matters of ensemble and balance, or the difficult tempo relationships during and between movements. The ’Andante’ was expressively characterised, with some winsome playing from guest-leader Boris Garlitsky, and the ’Intermezzo’ was put attentively through its paces – though the central section did seem unduly hard-driven.

Save for a rather blowsy treatment of the horn theme prior to the indelible melody of the ’Finale’, the introductions to both outer movements were powerfully, but not overbearingly conceived – and if their respective continuations seemed to be going through the motions to a degree, this was not Eschenbach’s fault entirely. He obtained playing from the LPO that, in the non-Saariaho works, was the best to be heard in any of these concerts. Whether, as an interpretative musician, his abilities quite warrant his current position in the conducting profession is another matter.

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