Philadelphia Orchestra 2

Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93

Gil Shaham (violin)

Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 May, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Maybe the Philadelphia Orchestra is in a transitional phase. This is, after all, Christoph Eschenbach’s first season as the Orchestra’s latest music director. Perhaps the current European tour has come too early into his tenure. In this second of two Barbican concerts (midway through a three-week itinerary), the Orchestra, while fulsome, refined and precise, displayed little beyond responding to the requirements of its conductor.

Little need be said about Gil Shaham’s antics. He certainly gave a display of violin pyrotechnics, though virtually nothing of his applied schmaltz, dynamic bulges and expressive ‘devices’ was related to Brahms. Add in his ice-skating platform manner (which affected balance), his admiring-of-Eschenbach or self-satisfied smiles, and a range of ill-judged ‘interpretative’ contrivances for something that was anything but an illuminating musical experience. Eschenbach provided a drilled accompaniment, albeit trumpets were too dominating whenever they played. And did Eschenbach need to so obviously direct the oboe solo at the beginning of the slow movement? The player seemed pressured. Better, surely, to allow a musician of this quality his own input.

And, make no mistake, the Philadelphia Orchestra remains a quality ensemble; its sound is classy, the strings are warm and attractively grainy (if not as rich as in Ormandy’s day), the woodwinds superb (especially first-desk clarinet and bassoon) and the brass is integrated. And Eschenbach is a cultured, thoughtful and individual musician … yet his account of the Shostakovich lacked edge and direction. That the opening Moderato was perilously slow is irrelevant – it would have worked but for tempo manipulations and inelegant transitions. The manic Scherzo was too manicured, and what remained was without atmosphere and expectancy. Comfortable Shostakovich is rather pointless given its fearful, shadowy and ironic origins. Eschenbach’s objective machinations and the orchestra’s contentment countered Shostakovich’s subjectivity. Balance wasn’t always ideal either, the conflagration of the first movement’s midpoint, neither intense nor glowering enough (and not helped by Eschenbach accelerating towards it), found the woodwinds losing out; no anguished ‘screaming’ here.

That the overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla was a wonderful encore – the tempo perfect, the playing glowing with vitality, colour and ‘felt’ modulations – suggests that the Philadelphians under Eschenbach can indeed look beyond efficiency and plush sonorities to make a mark.

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