in: Reviews

January 18, 2014

Eschenbach: Graceful and Heroic

by

A bubbly, enthusiastic crowd gathered at Symphony Hall on Thursday, January 16 to hear Christoph Eschenbach play and conduct Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414. The work had not been heard in here since 1996, and it was worth the wait. Eschenbach conducted from the piano, beginning the evening with a chamber orchestra drawn from the BSO’s best players. Wearing a simple black, high-collared suit, he played with his back to the audience, giving us a chance to see the full keyboard.

The distinguished music director of both the National Symphony and the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach, arranged the small group symmetrically around the piano, with the first violins (8), cellos (4), and a pair of double-basses on his left, and the second violins (8) and violas (6) on his right. Over the last three months, he has been alternating national appearances as an orchestral conductor with intimate lieder recitals, including several collaborations with baritone Matthias Goerne of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (this same weekend in Chicago and again next week at the Kennedy Center).

He took a sensitive and playful approach to Mozart’s 12th piano concerto, preferring a light touch and often leading the orchestra solely with his left hand. He alternated between quick patterns of four and lyrical, sweeping duple gestures, even within the first theme. His consistent, clean direction and beautiful incorporation of rubato (even in difficult passage work) lent an air of grace and restraint to the work, which was one of the first Viennese concertos Mozart penned.

In his 26th year, Mozart wrote as much for publication as for personal performance, and we have no record of the composer presenting his 12th concerto in public. More than a third of bars in the outer movements are for unaccompanied keyboard, and Eschenbach especially shone in those moments when he had the stage to himself, so to speak. His expansive approach to the first solo section of the second movement recalled Beethoven’s later chorales, slightly hesitating, with the right hand slightly more rubato than the left. After each of these solo passages, the BSO responded by playing with much more flexibility and subtlety.

Each of K. 414’s three movements includes several cadenza-like passages, and Mozart provided two full sets of cadenzas for the work. Although dominated by the strings, the concerto includes parts for four winds (two oboes and two horns) to supply color and reinforce the main orchestra. It was first published in Paris by Seiber together with K. 413 and 415; a letter to the publisher specifies that it “can be performed with full orchestra, or with oboes and horns, or merely a quattro [i.e. with a string quartet].”

The second half of the concert featured Anton Bruckner’s unfinished Symphony No. 9 and required more than twice as many players, including four Wagner tubas. Eschenbach is a respected interpreter and advocate of Bruckner, and he had just conducted the same edition of the composer’s 9th in Chicago one month ago.

In both cities, he began Bruckner’s last great score by focusing on the spiritual qualities of the work, crafting an organ-like sonority that both emphasized contemplation and evoked the composer’s past as a longtime church musician. The opening D was sustained for almost a minute, and you could imagine Bruckner humming the opening of Beethoven’s 9th before embarking on his own work. Eschenbach conducted without a score, highlighting climatic moments through his sensitive preparations of dissonances and the many tricky transitions.

His approach to the third movement was much more dynamic than in Chicago, with huge unison swoops and slides from the violins and much better intonation from the woodwinds. Eschenbach emphasized Bruckner’s famous climatic dissonance, cut by some editors, and made way for the delicate woodwind trios that demonstrate so clearly the spiritual fervor and warmth typical of Bruckner’s sacred music.

The high point of the concert, however, was the heroic second-movement Scherzo, sounding more like Solti or Mehta was at the helm. The brass contributed spectacular organ-like chorales, and the audience thrilled to extreme contrasts of dynamics and texture. Eschenbach found a way to emphasize the two eighth-note pickups to the driving unison theme, obscuring the downbeats, and creating a complex and fascinating web of sound. He challenged us to hear Bruckner experimenting with a new approach to melody, more fragmented and repetitive than typical romantic writing, more like a minimalist film score than Hanslick and his Viennese cronies were ready for in the 1880s. Bruckner usually demands that chromatic motives be repeated four, eight, even twelve times in rising sequences; the BSO played with such intensity that, if they hadn’t been stopped, they would have ascended with him all the way into the 20th century.

Christoph Eschenbach plays and conducts (Stu Rosner photo)

Christoph Eschenbach plays and conducts (Stu Rosner photo)

Laura Stanfield Prichard teaches music and art history at Northeastern University. She is a regular pre-concert speaker and writer for Boston Baroque, Masterworks Chorale, the Berkshire Choral Festival, and the San Francisco and Chicago Symphonies.

11 Comments

  1. “Wearing a simple black, high-collared suit, he played with his back to the audience, giving us a chance to see the full keyboard.”

    I laughed and choked. This is more like a 8th grader’s observation, trying to finish a review assignment by his teacher (I hope educators are not so stupid to assign such things to kids, including college level). Mr. Eschenbach had to play AND conduct, didn’t he? We had no chance not to see his back.

    I have to recover b4 I continue

    Comment by Thorsten — January 19, 2014 at 10:22 am

  2. When I read the title, I was hoping there is some subtlety in choosing the word ‘heroic’ (why was I so hopeful deep in my heart?)

    Extraordinary minds put meanings in their words and extract the meanings from the words. Ordinary minds just open dictionary and pile up words without meanings.

    If ‘heroic’ was used in some way to describe certain notable style of the performance, esp. the 1st movement, it could still possibly receive very reserved acceptance.

    However, after attending the concert and re-listening to the Sat broadcast, the writer was only able to ‘appreciate’ the 2nd movement, calling it her high point of the concert and put the ‘heroic’ crown on it. But wait a minute, for anoyone who really (I should say somewaht) know Bruckner’s music, this is a huge disaster of one’s musical experience, because of total failure in understanding the 2nd movement. Certainly, the booklet did not help her much.

    Every time, It makes very sad to think about it, more performances but not more understanding.

    Comment by Thorsten — January 19, 2014 at 10:51 am

  3. Our Editor’s criteria on civility are slackening: The previous review is replete with mockery and devoid of factual content. The piano’s orientation was unusual — pianist/conductors ordinarily sit sidewise to the audience. “Heroic” was an apt word, as would be “monumental” in Alex Rehding’s sense. Nowhere does the reviewer mention “re-listening to the Sat broadcast”, and nowhere
    does she mention a booklet. Her discussion of the rhythmic motto of the Scherzo is interesting, although on Friday, all notes seemed equally stressed, as indicated in the score (www.abruckner.com).

    Comment by Martin Cohn — January 19, 2014 at 12:51 pm

  4. I was at the Thursday night concert. Given that Bruckner is my favorite composer, I had been looking forward to the concert. But I thought Eschenbach’s B9 was a clear miss. I thought the interpretation was incoherent in its tempo shifts (which made no sense to me), and it seemed to me to lack a real sense of proportion throughout the performance. Further, either Eschenbach didn’t ask the BSO to play softly, or couldn’t get them to do so, and there were a number of passages in the first and third movement that were supposed to be soft but just weren’t. I didn’t hear any sense of mystery in the performance, nor did I get any real sense of spirituality. It just seemed like Eschenbach pushed and pulled the symphony to death, and the performance never gelled. I did not understand for the life of me how in each of the movements, Eschenbach would play a passage at first slow, and then when it repeated itself later, he played it significantly faster. I’ve never heard any other conductors do that, and if there’s a good reason for it in Eschenbach’s interpretation, it didn’t make itself clear to me.

    It’s always great to hear Bruckner’s 9th symphony, a visionary, powerful, horrible, beautiful piece of music that is beyond moving when it’s well done. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear that symphony Thursday night.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 19, 2014 at 4:53 pm

  5. ” Further, either Eschenbach didn’t ask the BSO to play softly, or couldn’t get them to do so, and there were a number of passages in the first and third movement that were supposed to be soft but just weren’t. I didn’t hear any sense of mystery in the performance, nor did I get any real sense of spirituality.”

    I have to agree with MM this time (no listing of discography). The first violin sounds very metallic or mechanical. It is debatable whether seating 2nd violin on the right made it worse (I know, arrangement is an old topic). There is a natural breath of the string in the music. Bruckner did it superbly (very very few composers were able to manage it, after Beethoven). My opinion is that the concertmaster just want to play harder and harder and louder, all the time. The result? unwanted constrast between 1st and 2nd V, blured constrast between V and C, viola melody flooded by the violin tremolo, mis-articulation of the woodwinds.

    Mr. Eschenbach certainly paced the tempo broadly. Many people have found the secret, slow pace works better for live performance. But I, too, have some problems with certain tempo shift in the 1st movement.

    Comment by Thorsten — January 19, 2014 at 5:37 pm

  6. One example is section I (about 7.5 or 8 mins into the movement) in the score.

    Before oboe starts its mysterious molody, it is asked that tempo be slowed down. There is a contrast between pre-I and I and there is a contrast between I and post I. Since the pace was already very slow, the sense of ‘silence’ was not established. After that, the flow of urgently pious praying was not built up either.

    I just use score as a reference, so that people know where I am pointing at. However, one really don’t need to open the book listening to MUSIC.

    There are other places that I can talk about. Mr. Cohn, if you have something to discuss, why don’t you share with the viewers, rather than to put me on the spot? By pointing out ‘heroic’ is NOT apt, I made a strong and important statement on Bruckner’s music, which I am dead serious about!

    Comment by Thorsten — January 19, 2014 at 6:29 pm

  7. Well, let me just state that the lead reviewer, Ms. Prichard, has the right to her own experience and opinion. I agree with you Thorsten, I did not hear a “heroic” interpretation or performance of Bruckner’s 9th, but that doesn’t make her experience any less real for her. [Ironically, Jeffrey Gantz of the Globe loved the concert too, which was a rare review coming from him; we seem to hear things at polar opposites, because concerts he’s not liked at all I’ve loved, and the rare concert that he loves such as this, I did not care for myself.]

    While the overall running time of Eschenbach’s B9 might be considered “expansive,” I didn’t think of it as an expansive reading overall, because there were sections that were obscenely slow (for no good reason that I could discern, such as the opening to the first and third movements), and then other sections that were rather fast. So while the overall timing might have been on the lengthy side, the performance felt helter-skelter rather than lengthy, with tempo shifts that seemed all over the map. I think Bruckner’s 9th benefits in general from a slower overall tempo in the first and third movements (but not the second).

    This by necessity forces one to address the question of how different conductors demonstrate the architecture of the piece (or any Bruckner symphony, for that matter). In recent memory the conductor who openly discussed this problem was Marek Janowski, in an inteview he gave on WGBH when he was in town conducting Bruckner’s 9th about 4 years ago or so. Janowski said that tempo shifts are “essential” to set apart the different sections of the piece, allowing the architecture of the work to emerge. And he was true to his word, because I had a bad case a whiplash at the end of his performance. While Janowski may have been guilty of clearly informing the world how he approaches Bruckner, it’s clear to me there are more than a few conductors who feel the same way even if they don’t explicitly say so.

    But consider Carlo Maria Giulini, who never approached Bruckner in this manner. His legendary recording of Bruckner’s 9th from a live concert with the Vienna Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammaphon, which to my ears is by far the finest recording of this work ever made, is as spacious a reading as one will find this side of Celibidache (the extreme outlier). Yet Giulini does not shift tempos back and forth, and many would argue that the architecture emerges even more clearly in this recording than in most performances–and at a very slow tempo that never once feels labored. How does he do it?

    The same way Hans Graf did it, in his MAGNIFICENT performance of Bruckner’s 7th with the BSO a number of years ago. Boston was lucky to hear a truly great performance of B7 conducted by Haitink about a decade ago, but I thought Graf’s was even finer. What Graf did so exceptionally in the concert was delineate the architecture of the work through contrasting orchestral sounds, not speed. I don’t know how he did it, but he made each of the “blocks” of the symphony sound different from one another, so that the architecture of the work was unmistakeable. Certainly Bruckner’s unique approach to orchestration, using the orchestra as a giant organ with contrasting blocks of sound, made this possible. But Graf then made sure that the contrasts were prominent without being disruptive, and the sonic effects were like no other performance of the work I’d ever heard before. I thought it was absolutely brilliant in its execution–even as I thought his basic tempo was a bit faster than I would have liked to hear. But it worked in every way, and it was a magnificent performance. Giulini, in his legendary Vienna Philharmonic performance, does the same thing.

    I think it takes far more skill as a conductor to do what Hans Graf and Carlo Maria Giulini did in their exceptional performances of B7 and B9. Shifting tempos is easy for any conductor; but making the orchestra *sound different* while not fluctuating tempos is a much harder feat to accomplish–and frankly a far more effective way to bring the genius of Bruckner to life.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 19, 2014 at 7:41 pm

  8. I don’t want to sign my name on the word ‘fluctuating’. As Bruckner and his music asked, there should be natural ups and downs, in both volume and pace. I used to just tell people the music image was wrong, when I hear sth strange. And they responsed, your hearing is SUBJECTIVE. Again, opening the score seems to be the only possible way to convince those non-receiving ears.

    After the development (not sure the right word, about 16 mins into 1st mov., section S in the score), where there is a meter change to 4/4. Mr. Eschenbach accelerated immediately after the ‘climax’, which failed to express the STRONG DETERMINATION asked by the music. Guess what, Bruckner’s score says I understand his music better. First of all, 4/4 meter is a sign of slowing down. There are indications of expression. Before the meter change, ‘poco riten.’ was requested. on 4/4, the play has to be ‘measured’, meaning slower and stronger MARCH. ‘kurz gestrichen’ labeled on strings means play cleanly, in order to show the determination, after all those struggles previously. It definetely does not mean to play fast and faster, which our conductor asked them to do and our concertmaster happily agreed. The mechanical playing of the strings showed that this music was never heart felt to them.

    Comment by Thorsten — January 20, 2014 at 8:15 am

  9. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. There are a lot of ways to describe the setup of a concert, and back-to-the-audience is somewhat striking, along with conducting the Bruckner without a score (he also did it this way in Chicago), so I wanted to lead with it. Some may disagree.

    One clarification: The titles and short summaries of BMInt articles are created by the editor, rather than the reviewer.

    I disagree with the program notes, and with comments of some other critics, that the second movement should be heard as dark, brooding, and in general, as a negative force. It’s just my opinion, but it’s based on over twenty years of performing Bruckner’s works.
    At the Thursday night concert, I heard several others around me say that they had enjoyed this Bruckner performance more than many others they had heard, and one local professional musician specifically said, about the second and third movements, “Well, I’m converted.” I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the performance, but many did!

    Comment by Laura Prichard — January 21, 2014 at 1:06 am

  10. Laura, I appreciated your thoughtful and perceptive review. My reaction to the Saturday evening performance was similar to yours, especially regarding the Bruckner. This was among the most interesting and deeply satisfying renditions I’ve heard over the years. In particular, the Scherzo was brilliant – marvelous how Eschenbach and the players achieved such transparency in the opening motifs at that tempo. Where they ceased to channel Solti, though, was the way the pulse subtly slowed for the great downbeats, giving them an almost unbearable gravitas.

    I do hear the Scherzo as diabolical, though – almost as if the listener is being hurried past the dancing demons and flickering flames that line the entrance to Bruckner’s vision of Hell, only to be plunged suddenly into the pulsing Inferno. “Abandon (almost) all hope, ye who enter here!”. Of course, it wouldn’t be Bruckner, though, if salvation weren’t awaiting on high, just a few dozen chromatic spirals away.

    Comment by nimitta — January 21, 2014 at 3:23 pm

  11. Mogulmeister, thanks for elaborating the opinions you shared with me following the concert. Agree that the outer movements are best when given enough space to breathe. I’m not resistant to an interventionist approach if it shows deep understanding of a work and reveals it to me in a different light.

    I’ve admired a lot of Eschenbach’s work over the years, but I’m finally arriving at the impression that Bruckner may not be his forte. Apart from a nice 4th with the North German Radio Symphony I found on a bootleg label and an impressive 7th broadcast from Cleveland early in his conducting career, the other Bruckner I’ve heard from him hasn’t turned out as well as I might have hoped. Before this 9th I’d already listened to an aircheck that was circulating a while back of him conducting the work with the NY Phil. Last week’s showing seemed to evidence a degree more detail in the interpretation and left me wondering whether the North German Radio Symphony–with whom he had a tenure as music director–might have delivered a different result for him. Eschenbach’s roots are in Hamburg, so the fine performances he obtained there might come as no surprise.

    In Thursday night’s performance there were a few cringeworthy moments from the brass. Although it may seem ungenerous to bring it up, in a Bruckner symphony it can be enough to blemish a critical moment and mar one’s appreciation.

    The 9th has been reasonably well-served on record. Everyone responds to different approaches, but I’ll nail my colors to the mast and admit to liking Furtwangler, Klemperer, Leitner, Wand II, Tate, and Blomstedt/Leipzig, off the top of my head. Celibidache is sui genreis.

    Comment by Fkalil — January 22, 2014 at 10:28 am

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