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Eschenbach and the NSO – Sibelius and Mahler

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

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Sibelius, Violin Concerto, L. Kavakos, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, O. Vänskä
(BIS, 1992)
On Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center, May 7, 2015, the National Symphony Orchestra, under Christoph Eschenbach, essayed two masterpieces – Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. This was done under the rubric of “Mahler Explored,” which is the motto the NSO is using in its traversal of the Mahler symphonies.

However, anyone who came for the Sibelius would not have been disappointed. It was played by Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who is a master at his craft. I first heard him play in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he undertook the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto. Coincidentally, that concert also included Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Not only did Kavakos play the Prokofiev brilliantly, but he offered as an encore the Andante from Bach's Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin. It was one of the most beautiful and spiritually moving performances of Bach, or anything else, that I have ever heard. Since then (9/2007), my radar has been on for this great artist.

Without being self-consciously virtuosic, Kavakos performed the Sibelius Concerto at the highest level. Some violinists play the Sibelius as if it, or they, were Paganini. Kavakos eschewed histrionics. The passion was in the music, not in his deportment. He played with strength, refinement, and clarity of line. The same intense concentration I had experienced in the Bach Andante was present in the cadenza of the opening movement, along with great beauty and purity of tone. Only for a split-second did Kavakos lose concentration as he cast a censorious glance toward the coughers in the audience who seemed to think of clearing their lungs as a kind of ostinato. Nonetheless, he perdured and produced playing of extraordinary subtlety in the Adagio, closing it with a breathtaking diminuendo. Eschenbach and the NSO provided firm support throughout, perhaps a bit too firm at the end of the closing Allegro, which threatened to swamp the violinist. The response of the audience was deservedly enthusiastic, but no more so than that of the NSO musicians who know how to show their appreciation for a great artist’s playing.

In the second half of the concert, Eschenbach and the NSO brought Mahler’s incredibly rich sonic world to brimming life in their performance of the Fifth Symphony. I thought the beginning of the first movement might have been a bit too measured, but Eschenbach soon displayed his usual talent for building large symphonic movements to powerful climaxes. The opening of the second movement snarled and snapped with plenty of bite. When the cellos took over the main melodic line about a third of the way through, they played with heart and poignancy, with just a whisper of timpani audible under them. Eschenbach then subtly layered in the winds, the brass, and the other orchestral sections. Everything was in place – the straining, the yearning, the huge heaving orchestral sighs, and the giant cataclysms.

Mahler famously insisted to Sibelius that the symphony must include the whole world. Well, it seems as if he tried to stuff the entire thing into the giant third-movement scherzo. Mahler called it “a very devil of a movement,” in which “each note is endowed with supreme life and everything in it revolves as though in a whirlwind or the tail of a comet.” No higher compliment could be paid to the NSO than that this is exactly how they made it sound. The “whirlwind” designation, however, should not slight the exquisitely delicate pizzicato playing in the strings or the marvelous piano achieved by the winds.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Kavakos, Eschenbach offer ragged emotional truth in NSO concert (Washington Post, March 8)

Jens F. Laurson, Too Few Witness Sibelius Greatness (Ionarts, March 9, 2007)
It is usually hard to keep the tears back during the famous Adagietto, but I was curiously unmoved – perhaps too exhausted from the scherzo. In any case, it did not affect me as powerfully as did the Adagio in the Mahler Ninth Symphony, which I heard the NSO perform so well in March (though I otherwise prefer the consistency of Eschenbach’s interpretation of the Fifth to what I heard in his Ninth). The closing rondo-finale was another rousing triumph of all-the-stops-out playing. I thought Eschenbach and the NSO might take the roof off the Kennedy Center. I’ve neglected to mention the timpani and brass, which is a crime, since they played as well as the other departments in this stirring performance.

This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night.

1 comment:

jfl said...

Bob & I also heard Kavakos in the Sibelius in London, a few years back. Scintillating, indeed!

London Town: A Sibelius Lover's Frozen Dream