Christoph Eschenbach Delivers a Visceral Mahler Second

06/06/2017

Mahler: Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto), Golda Schultz (soprano), The Washington Chorus (Julian Wachner, music director), National Symphony Orchestra / Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington, DC. 1.6.2017. (RRR)

Mahler – Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”

Christoph Eschenbach soon departs as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, a role in which he has served since 2008. He leaves a fine legacy, among which have been many fine Bruckner and Mahler performances. It is no surprise, then, that he should choose to conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony as one of his farewell concerts.

The last NSO performance of the Second was in the spring of 2008, led by Iván Fischer. I can’t imagine a reading more dissimilar to the one that Eschenbach delivered. Fischer was strong on subtlety and refinement, while Eschenbach excelled at drama and excitement. I do not wish to exaggerate: these two approaches are not polar opposites but displayed differences in emphases. Which one prefers is not only a matter of taste, but of what is revealed. If one wished to observe the inner workings of the symphony as a jeweled movement, one would turn to Fischer. If one preferred to be swept up in the forward motion, one would turn to Eschenbach. I am glad to have heard both.

Here is another comparison that may shed some light. To limber up for the concert, I listened to two of my favorite recordings: Leonard Slatkin with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and Klaus Tennstedt with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir – the latter from a live concert in 1989. Between the two there is a close to 13-minute difference, with Tennstedt taking the longer time. Of course, the true test of any performance is the relationship of the tempi within the amount of time a conductor takes, not the total time overall. Nonetheless, differences of this magnitude are significant. In this case, with Slatkin one sensed an orchestra playing great music in a thrilling way, while with Tennestedt one grasped the musical outpouring of a soul. In some of the Mahler I have heard Eschenbach play, he has been closer to Tennstedt than to Slatkin, but in the Mahler Second he leaned far more toward the Slatkin perspective.

To make a point through exaggeration, he played Mahler as if Mahler were a late Classical, rather than a late Romantic, composer – though that’s not quite right. He played the Second as if it were a Berlioz overture – Romantic, but pre-Mahler.

In any case, Eschenbach shot out of the gate in the first movement at a good clip with a full-throated approach. He kept things brisk and crisp, eschewing subtler, more expressive possibilities. He drove the music to its big moments with the expected sonic spectacle. The second movement achieved both transparency and precision in execution.

In the ensuing movements, I occasionally wondered: why the hurry? I thought Eschenbach occasionally rushed the fences. If he had broadened out the climaxes of some of the main themes, they would have achieved an even greater magnificence. This concern was alleviated in the choral sections of the symphony, graced by the excellent singing of The Washington Chorus and, most especially, by the contribution of soprano Golda Schultz, who soared over the orchestra in her impressive Washington debut. Contralto Nathalie Stutzmann gave a solid performance, dark-hued and worldly-wise in expression.

Special note ought to be made of the marvelous playing of the double basses, the timpanists, the offstage trumpets, and the two harpists.

Overall, then, it was a matter of sonic excitement – truly visceral and all-enveloping – versus expressive breadth and emotional weight. The former won by a knockout.

Robert R. Reilly

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