Philadelphia Orchestra/Eschenbach André Watts in New York

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

André Watts (piano)

Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 10 October, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

While the Vienna Philharmonic still only reluctantly accepts female musicians, the Philadelphia Orchestra made history this year by selecting two young women as brass principals. Jennifer Montone is the first woman to be appointed principal horn of a ‘Big Five’ orchestra (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia) in nearly 60 years. Carol Jantsch is believed to be the first female principal tuba of a major American orchestra, and quite possibly the youngest ever as well. At the time of her appointment she was only 20 years of age, and still a senior at the University of Michigan.

The ‘Pathétique’ begins and ends in the low register of the orchestra, but rather than low brass Tchaikovsky employs divisi double basses, violas, and a solo bassoon to open the symphony. Christoph Eschenbach, starting his fourth season as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, chose a very pensive, deliberate tempo, slowing to almost a standstill at the end of this introductory section. The following Allegro non troppo, on the other hand, was taken fast and with a fair amount of energy, more of a shocking contrast than starting a gradual build-up to the climax of the first theme. This basic approach turned out to prevail throughout most of the piece – languishing tender moments, and intense, energetic allegro sections. However, this was often achieved by abrupt shifts rather than natural evolution, and unfortunately arbitrary tempo interventions also tended to disrupt the structure of the piece.

It is not unheard of that a conductor slows down at the big climactic section of the first movement. To this listener, however, this approach took away all the tension one expects; it turned it into nothing more than beautiful string sound, almost overpowered by the brass, without much content. Eschenbach tends to try to beat intensity into the orchestras rather than draw it out, and at moments like these it becomes painfully evident how this limits his palette of expressive colors.

The second movement waltz in 5/4 meter didn’t reach the graceful tempo Tchaikovsky asks for until its restatement after the slowed middle section, while the brisk pace of the third movement march marvelously showed off the virtuosity of the orchestra. It was driven to an almost desperately excited ending, which prompted some bravos and quickly stifled applause.

The antiphonally seated violins were used to their strongest effect in the slow finale. The opening melody starts with the Seconds and switches back and forth on almost every note, intensifying the movement’s emotional impact, which Eschenbach sought to maximize at every juncture. Except for a jarringly loud double bass entrance after the brass chorale, he guided the symphony to a very gloomy, most resigned conclusion.

This season marks a double milestone for pianist André Watts, who had opened the concert with Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. In addition to his 60th-birthday he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Due to its four-movement form Brahms’s Second Concerto has sometimes been referred to as a symphony with piano obbligato, but on this occasion it certainly was the pianist who provided the focal point and energy.

This work has been in Watts’s repertoire for many years; he recorded it with Leonard Bernstein at the age of 21, but time has not diminished the zeal with which he delved into it from the very beginning. The high intensity of the first two movements was breathtaking. By no means was this a mere display of virtuosity though, but sincere musicianship at the highest level. Cellist Hai-Ye Ni, yet another young woman who recently joined the Philadelphia Orchestra as a section leader, matched Watts in tenderness of expression in the slow movement, and the lilting finale had just the right amount of playfulness to it. In a cultural climate obsessed with youth, the artistic maturity of a musician such as André Watts is a priceless treasure which unfortunately European audiences are largely deprived of.

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