Philadelphia Orchestra 1

Verklärte Nacht
Symphony No.1 in D

Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 21 May, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The first of two concerts on consecutive nights with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its new music director was a less than satisfactory occasion. That both the Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach are in the ‘great’ category is undoubted. On the evidence of this concert – and despite having recently led a four-week Mahler Festival in Philadelphia – Eschenbach is not a natural Mahlerian.

The Philadelphia Orchestra still sounds gorgeous, especially in its legendary string section. Verklärte Nacht (for strings alone) was ravishing: full-toned, beautifully integrated, and a thing of wonder. Yet despite near-perfection, it all sounded rather too comfortable. After all, Verklärte Nacht has distinct outlooks. A man and woman are walking through a forest on a moonlit night. She confesses that the child she is carrying is not his. The music reflects this inner turmoil. The man tells her that their love for each other will make the child their own. For this transfiguration to register fully, the angst of the opening section needs full rein. Here, the forest at night seemed a non-threatening place, the woods not deep and dark (to paraphrase Robert Frost). So, whilst admiring, one was not moved or stirred enough.

The Mahler was again splendidly played, the work’s very opening registering with an unobtrusive but perfect balance. Soon, however, doubts crept in. These were mainly to do with Eschenbach’s perception of the piece, not with the actual execution. Mahler One really is a very odd symphony – the sleepy-eyed and distant beginning, and the dynamic suppression throughout much of the first movement as it gradually grows to absolute release. Eschenbach seemed reluctant to savour the work’s full originality, more a desire to shoe-horn it into the mould of a classical symphony; that dawning opening was treated as introductory, and the ‘Wayfarer’ song on the cellos (here much too loud) as a first theme, and the becalmed centre as development. Whereas the whole point seems that each section should elide seamlessly as the movement germinates almost imperceptibly towards that single climactic moment of liberation.

The Ländler was altogether better, a well-judged, on-the-slow-side tempo, with wonderful lower strings; however, after the tender trio, the horn made an unmarked accelerando over the four bars into the Ländler’s reprise, which spoiled Mahler’s intended abruptness. The ‘Hunter’s Funeral’ third movement was beautifully played but fussed over, its natural deadpan pulse disrupted. The finale was unleashed at high speed, this magnificent orchestra packing a powerful punch. A radiant, withdrawn string theme lies in wait, which is marked pp and ppp throughout 40 of its 46 bars. Luscious though the Philadelphia’s violins were, they never descended below mf – the whole point of the passage, with its brief climax marked ff and, for one bar only, fff, was lost. The viola interjections later in the movement were stunningly together, but not heeding Mahler’s advice – “don’t hurry” – meant there was insufficient leeway to clinch the triumphant ending, which consequently sounded more than usually banal.

The Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride followed, a familiar Eschenbach encore.

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