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NSO Prepares for European Tour

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Rouse, Phaeton, Houston Symphony, C. Eschenbach
(Telarc, 2006)
Since Christoph Eschenbach came to the National Symphony Orchestra, he has made only one recording, a disappointment. The thing that has panned out is that Eschenbach has led the ensemble on two international tours, with another European tour planned for next month. They will be playing twelve concerts in eleven cities, with stops in Spain, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, and Poland. The programs include more music than they can possibly play on two programs this week and next week, but the first glimpse on Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was encouraging.

Some of the tour cities will be treated to Christopher Rouse's barnstorming mini-tone poem Phaethon, which makes quite an arc across the sky as a concert opener. This is the first time the NSO has played the piece, and it did not sound yet quite as rhythmically tight across the ensemble as it needs to be. The musicians played it with great verve and attention to its vivid details: burbling woodwinds (what sounded like a slide whistle may have been the flexatone?), kooky muted brass, the dull bark of an ostinato tuba line. A berserk French horn call, played with exceptional force, signaled the high-flying disaster that befalls the title character, with the full complement of six percussionists all walloping something, the climaxes marked by enormous hammer strikes (think Mahler's sixth symphony) and the swinging of a gigantic racket. It is a piece that should raise some eyebrows on the tour, just as it is meant to do.

Cellist Daniel Müller-Schott serves half the solo duties of the tour, with Lang Lang reprising his rendition of Grieg's piano concerto, heard in Washington in October. Müller-Schott, last heard here with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, did not do much with Dvořák's cello concerto. He had an ardent, never overbearing tone, lovely on the second theme of the first movement, although not as beautiful as the way it was introduced by the French horn solo in the orchestral exposition. His intonation was not always on target, in the development of the first movement, for example, but better in the second movement after he retuned his strings. In the slow movement, the interlude with the horns was excellent, and Müller-Schott had a lovely cadenza moment with the solo flute. He was freer with rubato in the third movement, alternately mischievous and soupy, but the overall effect was oddly underwhelming especially by comparison to the last time the NSO performed it, with Yo-Yo Ma in 2014.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO anticipates upcoming tour with Central European program (Washington Post, January 22)
The choice of Arnold Schoenberg's vast orchestration of the first piano quartet (G minor, op. 25 -- last heard in 2014) seemed weird for a tour, but it has the virtue of putting to work at least some of the percussion crew you are hauling along for the Rouse piece. Schoenberg orchestrated in ways that probably would make Brahms roll over in his grave but are really fun: in the development section of the first movement, the little motifs traded back and forth appear in every conceivable instrument. Eschenbach took the second movement, where the Brahms magic really has to happen, a little too fast, but the tempo settled down a bit afterward, and the fairy-dust coda, with its healthy dose of triangle, was magical. The march section of the third movement is hilarious in Schoenberg's orchestration, not to mention the use of marimba -- in Brahms! -- and other absurd percussion in the finale.

This concert would have been repeated tonight and Saturday night, but the arrival of a blizzard in Washington has closed the Kennedy Center along with everything else.


violinhunter said...

Touring can be tiresome. I'm sure the players know that they need to get lots of rest between concerts. It's a good thing Europe is a small continent - one can get from one place to another in a relatively short time. Good luck. (Eschenbach has a terrible reputation among most musicians but I don't know exactly why.)

Charles T. Downey said...

Well said. The schedule of this upcoming tour seems positively inhumane. My one experience with performing in Europe was not even close, a week-long choir trip with just a few performances in and around Rome, and it was absolutely exhausting.

As for your second point, Eschenbach's detractors are certainly much louder than his defenders. Something about his manner or style has rubbed many of his players, in more than one city, the wrong way.