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Lebe[wohl], Edward Cabarga: NSO's Mahler Tribute

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Live Reviews:
Lorin Maazel (Munich Philharmonic, 2012)
Christoph Eschenbach (Munich Philharmonic, 2011)
Marin Alsop (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, 2009)
Daniel Barenboim (Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 2005)
Leonard Slatkin (National Symphony Orchestra, 2005)
The National Symphony Orchestra lost one of its own earlier this week: bass clarinetist Edward Cabarga, who joined the ensemble in 2000, passed away on Sunday. The orchestra offered its performance of Mahler's ninth symphony (see the program notes by Thomas May), heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, in memory of their colleague. As mentioned in my preview article yesterday, it is a piece about farewells, in some ways about not wanting to say farewell just yet. It was also a piece, so we hear, that Edward Cabarga enjoyed playing, and every time that the bass clarinet poked its head out of the texture, one thought of him.

Christoph Eschenbach plans to use a good part of his remaining years with the NSO to focus on Mahler's works. Judging by his Mahler performances with the orchestra so far -- No. 4 (2011), No. 5 (2010), and Blumine (2013) -- it will be a rather idiosyncratic cycle (the third symphony and the Rückert-Lieder are planned for next season). What with Marin Alsop in the midst of an ever-improving Mahler cycle with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, it is a good time to be a Mahlerian in the Washington area. Eschenbach avoided Marin Alsop's mistake with the ninth symphony by not pairing it with anything else. This also meant that he could wallow a bit in the score, stretching it out to about 85 minutes, not the longest noted in Jens's overview for this work, but getting up there.

One of Eschenbach's interesting choices was to take the second movement not so fast, so that it had a weighty sort of feel to the Ländler, with some fun rustic touches, although the waltz rollicked more but never seemed out of control. Here and in a few other places the second violins sounded a little leaderless, with some ragged attacks, and were indeed playing without their principal musician. Not surprisingly for Eschenbach, the third movement was brash and rapid, at a tempo for which at times the musicians seemed a little unprepared, which gave this attack on Mahler's critics the feel of parody more than savagery. After these diversions, the finale did not seem to rise to where it should have: the tempo was slow but Eschenbach did not seem to leave a lot of room to set down phrases and stretch time. The crescendi were marshaled skilfully, although that magical transposition moment, where D-flat becomes C-sharp in the new key, seemed maybe a little rushed.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Eschenbach and the NSO go almost modernist with Mahler (Washington Post, March 20)
Where most of the transcendent magic occurred in this performance was in the first movement, where the undulating, molasses-slow tempo was stretched and caressed even further. All contributions, down to the many solo moments, were outstanding, with particularly ebullient and solid playing from the horns, who placed their bells in the air at the appointed times with almost military precision. Each time that the "Lebewohl" motif, that incomplete reference to Beethoven's "Les adieux" piano sonata, sounded in the orchestral fabric, it was lovingly stated, down to the very end, where the last syllable was reluctantly, almost silently intoned (in piccolo, plus harp and cellos on flageolet-tone harmonics).

This concert repeats tonight and Saturday night.

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