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NSO Ends Season with Bruckner 4, Mahler

available at Amazon
Bruckner, Symphony No. 4 (1886 version, ed. L. Nowak), London Symphony Orchestra, B. Haitink
(LSO Live, 2011)

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Mahler, Rückert-Lieder, V. Urmana, Vienna Philharmonic, P. Boulez
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2005)
Christoph Eschenbach extended his unofficial Bruckner cycle with the National Symphony Orchestra last night, with a rousing, buzzer-beating rendition of the fourth symphony, dubbed by the composer the "Romantic" symphony. He did so by following the formula he used with Bruckner's seventh symphony in 2012, when he paired Bruckner with Nathalie Stutzmann singing Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder. The French contralto, who last visited as the conductor of Handel's Messiah last year, gave a musically sensitive but often covered performance of Mahler's sublime Rückert-Lieder.

It had been over a year since our last Bruckner, when we heard the eighth symphony from the BSO, and the withdrawal symptoms were in full force. The NSO last played the fourth symphony, supposedly the most popular of the composer's works, in 2005, when Roger Norrington conducted Bruckner's original 1874 version. Bruckner rarely let his works alone, making obsessive revisions, taking cuts, sometimes then restoring them, and even replacing entire movements. For those keeping score, Eschenbach chose the 1878/1880 version (ed. Leopold Nowak) of the fourth symphony, the one with the joyful, programmatic Jagd-Scherzo but rejecting the colorful Volksfest finale, which he substituted in 1878, for the first in a series of revisions of the original finale. In addition to some cuts in the slow movement (which were a mistake in my opinion), the thing Bruckner was most trying to get right in all those revisions was the finale, with which he was never quite satisfied. Hearing the 1880 revision of the finale, one can understand why, as it meanders and drags through some less pleasing turns.

The piece opens with an exposed horn solo, played with assured subtlety by the NSO's principal horn player Abel Pereira, a motif that focuses on perfect fifths in the home key (B-flat to E-flat, E-flat to A-flat) with an alluring turn toward the minor subdominant (A-flat, C-flat, E-flat) that is such an important part of the thrilling crescendo at the conclusion of the last movement. Bruckner calls for so much tremolo in the string section that one feared for the players' wrists, especially when Eschenbach allowed the brass, who were magnificent, to overpower the other sections so much. At that rare moment in the first movement where the second violins get the melody, Eschenbach did little to guide the rest of the orchestra to create a space for them to sound.

Other Reviews:

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

Eschenbach's Bruckner:
no. 8 (2014) | no. 7 (2012)
no. 9 (2012) | no. 6 (2010)
Eschenbach's tempi were just slightly faster than those chosen by Bernard Haitink for his 2011 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, but with an impatience that unsettled the whole performance. This was most evident in the inner movements, as the Andante seemed to vary a lot in tempo (and not just in the ways Bruckner indicated), but with beautifully soft dynamics, especially in the introspective passages where the melody is in the viola section. There were some intonation issues in the woodwind sections, possibly due to balance problems in Eschenbach's interpretation, possibly because principal oboist Nicholas Stovall sat out.

The "hunting" Scherzo is exciting without having to be pushed as fast as Eschenbach pushed it, and by the end the initially rash tempo was mollified. The flute solo in the trio, which Bruckner said was "a dance melody which is played to the hunters during their repast," had a lovely, breathy sound, and the brass section, as throughout the symphony, was imperious from trumpets down to the tuba. Hard as it was to believe, an audience member was audibly snoring at the start of the fourth movement, in spite of all that loud brass in the scherzo. Perhaps Celibidache's expansive reading of this symphony with the Munich Philharmonic has spoiled me, with its luxurious renditions of the second and fourth movements, but Eschenbach's interpretation just seemed rushed (the fourth movement clocked in at 22 minutes), especially in that gigantic crescendo that ends the work.

Stutzmann's singing in the Rückert-Lieder was inspiring, as long as Mahler's orchestration was delicate enough that Eschenbach could keep the orchestra at pp, so as not to obliterate her tentative sound. If Stutzmann had to strain at all, her intonation, never quite on the head in the best of circumstances, suffered even more. In the third and fourth songs, where Mahler uses a larger orchestration, one just needs a larger voice than what Stutzmann could summon, and her relative lack of breath support meant that "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," performed last in a slight re-shuffling of the order of the songs, felt too rushed to disconnect from the world.

This concert repeats tonight and Saturday, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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