Prom 70: 12th September 2001 – Paris 2

Overture to Benvenuto Cellini
Symphony No 2 in C
The Rite of Spring

Orchestre de Paris conducted by Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 12 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Another offering from the polished and committed Paris Orchestra, with the stylish, always controlled conducting of Christoph Eschenbach; and, as with Prom 68, a work – The Rite of Spring – that benefited positively from a large acoustic space.

It’s surprising to me, though no doubt a product of historical fashion, that Schumann’s symphonies – especially the ’Rhenish’ – have been so little aired at the Proms. Less surprising, however, that the Second, which is the most puzzling of the four, should be the least well known. Just witness the analytical gyrations the programme-note went into to describe the work.

Eschenbach has conducted for so long that it is easy to forget he began as a pianist. However, his Schumann betrayed his origins – well-shaped detail, excellent ’vertical’ control of sound, but not always the smoothest sense of flow. At the symphony’s opening one looked for more direction, a longer sweep of conception, a greater sense of how the introduction would develop into the movement proper, which was neat rather than impassioned, looking back to Haydn rather than Beethoven, reminiscent of Eschenbach’s piano interpretations. The development was measured, the lead-back to the recapitulation appropriately enthusiastic, the coda exact – everything in place if nothing really extraordinary.

Eschenbach took an analytical rather than dance-like approach to the scherzo; again, especially in the trio sections, reminiscent of his piano-playing. There was no shortage of lightness or energy, and the movement ended with the appropriate scurry; excepting the finely moulded second trio, there could have been more colour and variety. The slow movement that follows is difficult to interpret. The orchestra offered some very fine playing, notably in the horns, and the performance was always careful and affectionate, but in the end, its mystery was not fully elucidated.

In the episodic finale it seemed as if Eschenbach was playing one of the many sets of Schumann’s miniatures.This started too foursquare and markedly improved with the arrival of the song-like theme halfway through (a reminder that Eschenbach has made many prized recordings as a Lieder accompanist). The counterpoint of the development and the reprise of the main theme were also excellently delivered. Although Eschenbach kept the orchestra reined-in at the close, he caught the mood of a hard-won but triumphant conclusion. A good performance, but not one that had the intuitive rightness of Masur’s ’Spring’ in Prom 56.

As the previous night’s Symphonie fantastique had shown, Eschenbach can control Berlioz’s sometime rambling structures and complex textures. A lively account of the Benvenuto Cellini overture bore this out. Eschenbach conveyed both the disorder and energy of this evocation of Renaissance Rome without losing sight of the music’s direction; these skills came to the fore in The Rite of Spring.

Stravinsky’s ballet gives the orchestra every chance to show its virtuosity, especially the bassoon that opens the work. Eschenbach rose to the conducting challenge admirably. The polish of the playing did not prevent him conveying the elemental and disturbing elements of the ’sacrificial dance’. Stravinsky’s characteristic ironic humour, the absolute exactness with which the difficult rhythms were delivered, and the almost Symbolist presentation of the ’Mysterious Circles of Adolescent Girls’ were other highlights. This was, however, a French rather than Russian performance – ultimately urbane and civilised more than primeval and shocking. As for the whole concert, this Rite was emotion subordinated to intellect – French wit led by German efficiency.

Proceedings were enlivened by a percussion section whose deportment – ranging from the stillness of the stone guest to a timpanist who fancied himself as an extra in “Napoleon” – was a veritable ballet of its own; its contribution was always accurate, most notably in the ’Dance of the Earth’.

For encores, Smetana’s ’Dance of the Comedians’ – real edge-of-seat playing – and a fizzy account of Berlioz’s version of the ’Rakoczy March’.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Thursday, 20 September, at 2 o’clock

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