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Ionarts-at-Large: Eschenbach in Munich

In July of 2007 I heard the Munich Philharmonic for the first time in almost seven years. After having spent years of jumping to the defense of the orchestra’s shoddy or non-existent reputation in America, my excitement was considerable; on the program: Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The concert was a blunt shock: with a performance so pallid, listless, and uninvolved, I feared that the orchestra’s worst detractors had been right and I—unwittingly rooting for the home team—completely off. It took a while to reckon that that Mahler Ninth under a non-conductor was not representative of the quality of the orchestra’s potential. Merely representative of their fickleness when it comes to working with conductors they deem beneath themselves. A pity they took it out on Mahler and the audience, but also a relief to find them capable of providing the orchestral highlights of the Munich orchestral scene pretty much whenever Christian Thielemann took the reins.

Three and a half years later they redeemed their earlier Mahler misdeeds. Christoph Eschenbach had long been absent from Munich after some less fortunate stints with the orchestras in town, but since he and MPhil executive director Paul Müller go back a long way, he’s a regular again with the Munich Philharmonic. Fortunately the orchestra plays along.

available at AmazonG.Mahler, Symphony No.9,
J.Levine / Munich Philharmonic
Whether Eschenbach is uniquely suited to Mahler (he claimed yes when we talked about Mahler last year, his Paris videos suggest no, the Philadelphia recordings yes again…) is debatable. The Mahler on this occasion, however, goes solidly into the book on the “yes” side. Anyone unprejudiced by Eschenbach’s checkered reputation heard troubled-but-terrific Mahler this mid-January Sunday night at the Gasteig. The first movement was an exclamation mark, with orchestral waves lapping over the music, their crests breaking early on the many premature climaxes Mahler strews about. No trace of diffidence or oddly non-committed romantic soup here. There may have been little by way of communication coming from Eschenbach in rehearsal and concert, but the result was considerably more idiomatic than the routinely praised, micromanaged, wholly aloft Mahler of Mariss Jansons.

Whether it was Eschenbach’s explicit wish to let the second violins tear into the second movement with gutsy abandon and rustic vigor—or whether it was his laissez-faire approach that allowed them to do so is immaterial. Ditto wherefrom the third movement’s shrieks, hairpin turns, its nervous restlessness and hounded and unruly elements came. Usually those two middle movements stand no chance against the towering pillars of the outer movements, and while Eschenbach, too, seemed to feel more at home in the elegiac first and fourth movements, the Ländler and the Rondo were no mere filler. Still, the no holds barred finale overshadowed all that came before. Less Brucknerian than it can be in calmer hands, Eschenbach held the tension to the very end, through moments of absolute silence… all while almost stretching it to Levine-like 30 minutes. Apart from greater technical assurance and a properly performing trumpeter—the solo trumpet on duty, either plagued by health problems, a case of the nerves, or both, should have excused himself—the only thing missing was a small hatchet that, swiftly wielded, might have prevented the worst in ruthless coughing (always in the most tender spots of silence) of audience members so audibly showing off the discomfort of their overtaxed minds.

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