Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
It was brilliant programming, in any case, that gave Eschenbach the chance to show off 16 of his masterful principal players, with particularly strong contributions from the flute and piccolo (performed here by separate musicians), horn, and oboe players. Schoenberg telescoped the four movements of a traditional symphony into a dense 20 minutes, with an ardent opening section, a quasi-Wagnerian slow episode, a comic scherzo section contrasting high and low sounds, and an exciting fast conclusion. The piece plays with extremes, skewing especially to the bass, with prominent use of bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon, cello and bass, and testing all the players by driving the instruments to the edges of their traditional ranges.
Matthias Goerne, baritone
German baritone Matthias Goerne, whom we have reviewed several times at Ionarts, then took the stage to sing a set of Schubert songs. This was especially fortunate since he had been forced to cancel two previous appearances on this tour, because of a family illness. His voice, an instrument stronger in its higher register than its lowest notes, is a thing of velvet smoothness, capable of a crystal-clear diction that manages not to interrupt a pure legato. Schubert crafted his songs for the piano, and what orchestration of them gains in the possibility of greater tonal color, it risks in overbearing sound.
Eschenbach and the orchestra clearly relished the role of accompanying, creating almost uniformly the perfect sound tapestry for the words in Goerne's mouth, as in the opening Shakespeare translation, An Silvia (D. 891), with its animated lute-like orchestration. A substantial part of the pleasure derived from this set, between almost all of the songs of which the audience could not refrain from applauding, was in the skilful orchestrations, mostly by Brahms, Webern, and Reger. The sweeping Faustian introduction to Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, the muted brass colors in Der Wegweiser (from Winterreise), and the rippling brook variations in the strophic song Tränenregen (from Die Schöne Müllerin) were all necessary to the atmosphere.
Music director Christoph Eschenbach leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, photo by Michael T. Regan
The second half was dedicated to Brahms's first symphony (C minor, op. 68). This is the Philadelphia Orchestra's bread and butter, with its sonic boom of an opening, moments of glassy smoothness, and preference for large gesture. Eschenbach's reading seemed at odds with the orchestra at times, as in the slightly discombobulated middle section of the second movement and a third-movement Allegretto that was a bit too far to the jaunty side. Even if it was not as polished as one could have hoped, which we could attribute as much to fatigue at the end of a long tour as to discord between the orchestra and Eschenbach, this Brahms was smoldering, emotional playing, with solid brass and lush strings. For a single encore, it was more Brahms, the fifth Hungarian dance, played with abandon and yet almost grudgingly given.
Orchestras on next season's WPAS series include the La Scala Philharmonic (October 10), the Cleveland Orchestra (October 15), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra playing Schoenberg's first Kammersinfonie again (!) (October 18), Yuri Temirkanov and Julia Fischer with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (October 23), the Philadelphia Orchestra but this time with James Conlon (December 6), the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from Amsterdam (February 3), and the Orchestre National de France (April 28).