Philadelphia Orchestra/Eschenbach in New York

Violin Concerto
Symphony No.4

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

Marisol Montalvo (soprano)

Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 21 November, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

Christoph Eschenbach has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons – first for stepping down as the Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra after only a five-year tenure, and more recently for revealing his reasons for doing so. According to an article by Peter Dobrin in the Philadelphia Enquirer, “after rehearsal … nearly alone with the musicians, Eschenbach told them that orchestra president James Undercofler had made three points to him – that 80 per cent of the musicians did not agree with his artistic interpretations; that 80 per cent of the musicians left concerts feeling great anger; and that the orchestra was a “ticking time bomb.”

Listening to the Mahler unfortunately it was not difficult to understand the musicians’ viewpoint. From the very beginning Eschenbach seemed determined to impose his vision on the piece, regardless of what the composer had very clearly specified in the score. At the end of the third bar already he slowed the whole orchestra down dramatically, although Mahler asks for only a poco ritenuto, and only in the violins and clarinets. The second movement had originally been given the title “Freund Hein spielt auf” – freely translated as “Death is playing for us” – using a violin tuned up a step to represent the grim reaper. On this occasion it seemed that he wanted to beguile his listeners. Concertmaster David Kim simply could not bring himself to abandon his gorgeous tone and play his solos “like a fiddle”, as per Mahler’s instructions, and Eschenbach’s concept lacked any dark elements.

In the third movement, marked Poco adagio, Eschenbach’s basic approach to the symphony of more or less loving it to death’ proved to be the most counterproductive. It is one of the most moving and beautiful movements Mahler ever wrote and it benefited greatly from the separation of sound produced by antiphonally seated violins. However, it does not need, or rather is structurally destroyed by, making every cadence into a special event, lingering on every moment. The constant interruption of the flow made it impossible to get any sense of direction or dramatic build-up, and additionally the many intermediate climaxes rendered the true highpoint of the movement rather meaningless.

After having sat in front of the conductor’s podium since the beginning of the symphony and subtly emoting with closed eyes the whole time, it finally was soprano Marisol Montalvo’s turn to invoke a child’s vision of heaven. Dressed in a billowy bright green dress with a train, and using fairly melodramatic body language and hand gestures, she neither conjured up a vision of innocence, nor did she sing at a level one expected. Her pianissimos were beautiful, but when more drama and volume were called for, she either had severely miscalculated by trying to imitate a child’s voice with a breathy tone, or she simply did not have the necessary power to project over the orchestra.

The concert had opened very promisingly with a riveting account of Berg’s Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos. The composer’s last completed work is dedicated “to the memory of an angel”, Manon, the daughter of Mahler’s widow (Alma) and her second husband Walter Gropius; she had died of polio at the age of 18. Leonidas Kavakos masterfully conveyed all the tenderness and sense of loss, as well as the drama of this music, while making the technical difficulties seem effortless. Eschenbach and the orchestra provided him with a most sympathetic and atmospheric accompaniment.

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