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Hail, Eschenbach, All Hail

available at Amazon
Mozart, Piano Concertos (nos. 9, 19, 21, 23, 27), London Philharmonic Orchestra, C. Eschenbach

available at Amazon
Zemlinsky, Lyrische Symphonie, M. Goerne, C. Schäfer, Orchestre de Paris, C. Eschenbach
In the first year of two new music directors in Washington -- Philippe Auguin at the Washington National Opera and Christoph Eschenbach at the National Symphony Orchestra, both now associated ensembles of the Kennedy Center -- lovers of classical music are stepping into what seems to be a golden age of listening in the nation's capital. Christoph Eschenbach's inaugural season with the NSO has not been without any drawbacks, but a new streak of daring programming reached its apex this month with rarely heard pieces like Roussel's Padmâvatî and Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. The NSO's part in the Kennedy Center's maximum INDIA festival came to a grand conclusion this week with Alexander Zemlinsky's Lyrische Symphonie, heard at the second performance last night. Sadly, all three of these programs have been largely neglected by the NSO's regular fan base, with a fairly sparse crowd last night and hundreds of tickets unsold for today's matinee.

My suggestion last week for the NSO's programming of Turangalîla, to pair a work less palatable for Washington's conservatively minded audience with something easier to swallow, was actually implemented this week. Unfortunately, the chance to hear Eschenbach both conduct and play the solo part in a Mozart piano concerto -- no. 23 in A major, K. 488 -- was still not enough to draw a large audience. Eschenbach has an alluring way with Mozart, heard in his recordings with the London Philharmonic, and he led a performance that was not without technical shortcomings but was musically captivating. The NSO announced earlier this month that the originally planned concerto, Beethoven's first, had to be changed because Eschenbach was undergoing treatment for severe tendonitis, and even in the Mozart many of the fast passages in Eschenbach's right hand were glossed over just a bit.

No. 23 is a favorite of many pianists: Ingrid Fliter played it with the NSO just last season, and Mitsuko Uchida has just released a new recording of it. Eschenbach gave the score an ultra-emotional, even mannerist performance, twisting and elongating many phrases by stretching the pacing, especially in the slow movement, almost what one imagines a Romantic pianist like Chopin might have done with the work. He selected a rather small number of string players, which created an optimal balance with the woodwinds and horns, which were more present in this arrangement than with a larger orchestra. The first movement had a genial tempo, not too fast, while the second was stretched out almost to the breaking point, and all through Eschenbach emphasized soft, even sotto voce dynamics. Offering a tribute to the people of Japan, Eschenbach and this large chamber group went back for more Mozart, the slow movement of piano concerto no.  12, K. 414.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Eschenbach leads NSO’s first ‘Lyric’ ode to India (Washington Post, March 18)

Alex Baker, Goerne, Eschenbach, NSO in Zemlinsky (Wellsung, March 18)

Marie Gullard, Songs of sensuality at the Kennedy Center (Washington Examiner, March 19)
As for the main event, this was the first time that the NSO has ever performed Zemlinsky's orchestral song cycle, a setting of seven poems by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (a German translation based on the poet's own English translation) inspired at least in part by Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.
the balance problems that reportedly plagued the first performance on Thursday night had been resolved, and with few exceptions both singers could be heard clearly over Zemlinsky's enormous orchestra. Eschenbach brought baritone Matthias Goerne, an Ionarts favorite, from his excellent recording of this work, with the Orchestre de Paris, and he was a suave, virile presence in the male songs of the cycle. One wished for the other half of the recording, Christine Schäfer, especially after our disappointment with Eschenbach's last engagement of Twyla Robinson. The American soprano, however, was in much better form this time, not exactly overpowering the hall but singing with an admirable sense of strength and varied color.

The orchestra seethed and boomed with exotic and, at times, earth-shattering sound, perfectly in sync with their conductor, who led the score with an experienced and clear hand. The poetry is the sort of heavily symbolic, chest-heaving verse perfectly suited to Zemlinsky's harmonically corrupt late Romanticism, a sort of rapturous love encounter with cosmic infinity. He set it with boozy portamenti and tidal swells of orgasmic sighing, culminating in the Wagnerian Liebesnacht of the fourth song. Parts of the soprano solo are cast in a style almost like Sprechstimme, and the conclusion of the final song, sung masterfully by Goerne, was a tender apotheosis.

This concert will be repeated this afternoon (March 20, 1:30 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


Anonymous said...

I do like the programming ideas, but I really didn't care for today's performance of the Mozart. The orchestra's sound was muddy, and Eschenbach's first movement was heavy-handed.

Martin Fritter said...

What's up with Goerne? Sounds like he was more than fine. He has withdrawn from Wozzeck I hear -- scheduled for knee surgery, but it seems like something that could been postponed. Leads me to suspect Levine will not be conducting.

Charles T. Downey said...

Anonymous: Agreed that Eschenbach's Mozart is probably not for everyone.

Martin: Goerne may feel up to concert performances but not a staging if his knee is the problem.

MUSE said...

Bravo!!! I was not there but I can imagine it. I only know Zemlinsky's chamber music but "boozy portamenti and tidal swells of orgasmic sighing" paints a very compelling word picture I believe. I shall now have to look this work up somewhere.