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Second Opinion: Bruckner and Mahler at the NSO

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

I can now lay claim to being a Christoph Eschenbach Bruckner veteran. This is because I have heard his prior NSO performances of Bruckner’s Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies, and now I have heard his Fourth. In these pages (or on this site), I praised the performances of the Eighth and Ninth, and gave the Seventh a mixed review. I shall engage in almost unadulterated praise of the Fourth, which I heard on Friday evening, in the second of its three performances.

But I must speak of the first item on Friday’s itinerary – Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. It is not at all odd to pair Mahler and Bruckner together on a program. At least Mahler would not have thought so. One of the things I most admire in him is his having had all the scores of Bruckner’s symphonies printed in Vienna, at his personal expense. I take that as the tribute of one great artist to another.

I am a neophyte when it comes to the Rückert-Lieder. I have never heard them performed live and know them only from the famous John Barbirolli/Janet Baker recording. In any case, they are gems set with marvelous delicacy in Mahler’s inimitable orchestral language. They were sung by contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, who seems to be an Eschenbach favorite. In past NSO appearances, I have heard her in the Wesendonck Lieder by Richard Wagner, as orchestrated by Hans Werner Henze, and in Dvořák's Stabat Mater. She has a rich, caramel voice, which she deploys was a good deal of nuance and expressivity. But, as I noted in the past, she occasionally has trouble projecting. This seemed to be the case on Friday evening, though it was hard to tell whether this was her fault or the orchestra’s. At times, it seemed as if Eschenbach had turned up the volume behind her.

In the first song, the orchestra appeared to be playing altogether too loudly. It seemed to settle down in the second. However, in another instance, when Stutzmann was singing piano, she got swamped by an oboe playing forte. I can’t imagine this having happened when the NSO first performed the Rückert-Lieder because Jessye Norman was the soloist. She would’ve blown that oboe all the way back into the dressing room. However, I don’t want to make too much of this because Stutzmann was very expressive and particularly moving in the last two songs, with especially exquisite shading on the phrase “ich sei gestorben.” The orchestra also did its part in the last song by relaying the music’s connection to the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, on which Mahler was apparently working at the same time. Eschenbach distilled its diaphanous beauty.

With the Fourth Symphony, Bruckner’s greatness comes clearly into view. All the baby fat, galumphing, and ungainliness are gone (well, nearly, depending on which of the four versions you’re listening to, which in this evening’s case was the 1878/80 edition, edited by Leopold Nowak). One does not normally associate the term diaphanous with Bruckner, but Eschenbach and the NSO delivered a performance of this work that nearly earned this appellation. The orchestra softly whispered the opening string tremolo before the horn calls summoned the main theme. This was the first exhibition of extremely fine pianissimo playing, at one edge of the tremendous range of expression that the orchestra had on display, which was just as exhilarating as the pounding fortississimos of the magnificent climaxes.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Eschenbach takes the NSO back to one of his favorites, Bruckner (Washington Post, June 10)

Charles T. Downey, NSO Ends Season with Bruckner 4, Mahler (Ionarts, June 10)

Eschenbach's Bruckner:
no. 8 (2014) | no. 7 (2012)
no. 9 (2012) | no. 6 (2010)
And in between, one could hear everything. This was a performance of tremendous transparency, never gained at the expense of a slackening tempo. As finely molded as this music was with every delicious lilt in it expressed, Eschenbach kept everything within a fairly tight grip. This is not to say that he rushed the fences; he terraced up to the climaxes very nicely, in a well-shaded and well-paced manner. This was nowhere more evident than in the way in which he built the string tremolos in the Finale to its majestic culmination. The one movement in which one might say that Eschenbach did rush the fences was the Scherzo, which he took at a blistering pace. The fact that the NSO took the breakneck tempi fully in stride provided a great deal of excitement. This was an orchestra at the top of its game in the Scherzo and throughout.

With the Symphony performed in this way, we experience the exultation of one of the mountain peaks Bruckner ascended. From its top, we can almost see the Matterhorn of the Eighth Symphony above us. I cannot imagine anyone not being thrilled with having been given this view. Anyone who hasn’t should rush for tickets for Saturday night. In fact, the only thing wrong with Friday evening was the pitiably small audience, which nonetheless proved capable of coughing above its weight class during the Rückert-Lieder. Bruckner proved to be a giant cough drop.

I close by applauding the Playbill “Notes on the Program,” written by Dr. Richard E. Rodda. A lot of space is often wasted in program notes by musicologists who try to give a technical blow-by-blow of what is happening in the music – which leaves most readers in the state of incomprehension. Dr. Rodda’s notes, on the other hand, go to the most important thing – the spirit of the music, which he eloquently captures. More of this, please.

This concert repeats this evening, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


Steve from down South said...

"Coughing above its weight class" - destined to become a classic.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I was in row H on Saturday night and found that the contralto's voice didn't carry very well to the 8th row. How was it further back? I enjoyed her singing very much but really felt like I was in a sound shadow.