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Second Opinion: Eschenbach's Mahler 5

Christoph Eschenbach will step down from the music directorship of the National Symphony Orchestra after the next two seasons. His influence will continue after that, through the musicians he has helped to engage during his tenure. This week's main attraction, Mahler's mammoth fifth symphony, seemed chosen at least in part to feature three of those recent arrivals -- principal trumpet William Gerlach and principal horn Abel Pereira, both appointed last year, and principal harpist Adriana Horne, appointed in 2013 -- heard at the Friday performance in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Other Reviews:

Robert R. Reilly, Eschenbach and the NSO – Sibelius and Mahler (Ionarts, May 8)

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

Terry Ponick, The NSO’s industrial strength evening of Sibelius and Mahler (Communities Digital News, May 8)

Charles T. Downey, DCist Goes to the Symphony: NSO's Bright Future (DCist, October 16, 2010)

Jens F. Laurson, Too Few Witness Sibelius Greatness (Ionarts, March 9, 2007)

Mahler 5 on Ionarts:
Valery Gergiev | Juraj Valcuha | Alan Gilbert
Daniele Gatti | Daniel Barenboim
Christoph Eschenbach (Philadelphia Orchestra) | Marin Alsop
All three gave excellent renditions of the important solo parts in this symphony, receiving loud ovations when singled out by Eschenbach at the concert's end. The brass in general had a strong night all around, producing crushing power in the many booming crescendos of the piece. Gerlach's opening trumpet solo was assured, although Eschenbach, from the groan of low instruments in answer, set a somewhat uneven pace to the funeral march, wallowing a bit in his sentimental approach. Likewise, the second movement was a vast and wild tumult of sound, if a little crazy and not quite unified, with the violin section, three of whose retiring members were honored at Thursday night's concert, sounding especially ragged.

Eschenbach's tempo for the massive scherzo seemed too fast, but here the blazing horn calls from Pereira were a powerful propelling force. In a not unrelated way, Eschenbach did not take his time in the Adagietto either, where there were no swooning portamenti in the strings, although the ending was slowed down and taken to a complete fade al niente, with subtle contributions from Horne's harp. Impatience also came through in the finale, which seemed over-fast at times, especially in the string fugato sections, where the runs were often indistinct blurs. It was all in all a viscerally exciting yet not entirely coherent rendition of this puzzling piece.

Pairing Mahler's fifth with Sibelius's violin concerto was maybe a bit much, but as expected Leonidas Kavakos worked his magic on the solo part. He took a meditative approach to the first movement, his ruminative themes taken up in ecstatic commentaries by the amassed orchestra, held at bay by Eschenbach when Kavakos was playing. Kavakos had a gorgeous, loamy tone on the G string, but his high playing on the E string was much less reliable, with some intonation problems and other issues. The second movement was especially evanescent, from both soloists and orchestra in piano passages, with Kavakos joining the first violins in many of the tutti sections. The folksy gutsiness of Kavakos's style in the finale was memorable, but he often rushed in the more driven parts, forcing Eschenbach and the orchestra to scramble often to stay with him, which created an occasionally sloppy lack of ensemble. Loud ovations merited the encore that was not forthcoming on Thursday night, the Largo of Bach's third unaccompanied violin sonata, played with guileless simplicity.

This concert is repeated tonight.

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