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S & H Concert Review

Philadelphians I: Schoenberg & Mahler Philadelphia Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach, Barbican, 21st May, 2004 (CC)

Christoph Eschenbach took up the post of Principal Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in September last year (he is just the seventh person to hold this post). A high-profile tour seems calculated to set the seal on this appointment and in its heyday, of course, the Philadelphia Orchestra was universally recognised for its excellence.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’) coupled with Mahler’s First Symphony makes for short shrift. Schoenberg’s famous string sextet (here in its expanded version for string orchestra), in the right hands, can take emotions to extremes in the unfolding of the perhaps somewhat unrealistic storyline of Richard Dehmel’s poem.

Immediate immersion into the Schoenbergian late-Romantic world would seem a pre-requisite for this work. So it was that the essence of Eschenbach and the Philadelphians’ interpretation was established at the very start. A good, middle-of-the-road tempo and excellent control from the string players was the first thing to strike the listener; the next was that no emotive link in the composer-performer-listener chain was secured at any point.

The challenge of Verklärte Nacht is to balance the clear delineation of the Brahmsian voice-leading against chromatically saturated late/post Romanticism. This is indeed a difficult path to tread, and in his efforts towards clarity, Eschenbach lost sight of the overall picture. Big, warm harmonic arrival points may have sounded luscious, but they categorically failed to carry the requisite harmonic and structural weight.

Throughout the performance, two solo contributors were noteworthy - the consistent excellence of the solo viola and (notable for a different reason), the rather sharp-toned efforts of the leader, David Kim. But it became clear that something further was missing. While the Philadelphians can conjure up a magical pianissimo, any volume above a healthy-ish mezzo-forte was missing. An incomplete dynamic spectrum hardly helps.

Whatever the shortcomings of Christoph von Dohnányi’s recent Mahler First with the Philharmonia, it remains a memorable performance. Its faults were as nothing to Eschenbach’s.

To begin with, and infinitely surprisingly, there were technical problems, most especially from the horns, with ragged entries from the third and fourth players in the first movement, not to mention the section’s initial, tentative entry. The climax to this movement was not prepared by Eschenbach by any form of long-range thought, so emerged as merely (very) loud. The sense of the grotesque, so vital to the second movement, was almost entirely absent. At least there was some sense of the rustic in the Trio.

Horns aside, the entire enterprise showed us the technical brilliance of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Have the opening octaves ever been so perfectly held? Or has the rapid string figuration of the finale’s beginning ever been so together? Yet the final peroration - so loud, so brash - said it all. A lot of sound (a lot), with no fury and certainly no exhilaration, signifying absolutely nothing.


Colin Clarke


Further Listening

Mahler 1: Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernstein. DG Panorama 469 154-2

Schoenberg: Berlin Philharmoniker/von Karajan. DG The Originals 457 721-2 (coupled with Pelleas und Melisande)


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