Concertgoers Welcome Eschenbach’s Return with Unmistakable Warmth

09/02/2018

Weber, Schumann, Beethoven: Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Philadelphia Orchestra / Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 3.2.2018. (BJ)

Weber – Overture to Der Freischütz
Schumann – Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129
Beethoven – Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

After the raw deal that Christoph Eschenbach was handed by segments of both public and press — not to mention a number of orchestra players — during his tenure from 2003 and 2008 as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, it was heartwarming to observe the warmth and enthusiasm that lit up the hall for this return visit.

The Weber overture got things started with stylish and graceful playing, and when Alisa Weilerstein joined the orchestra for Schumann’s Cello Concerto, their rapport seemed to convey an instinctive rightness on all sides. Far from being Schumann’s finest piece, the concerto nevertheless has its rewarding moments, but their realization demands dedicated advocacy. This it certainly received from Weilerstein, whose playing exemplifies an attractive lightness of tone and clarity of articulation rather than the deep-throated richness of sonority that some cellists aim for.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, after intermission, benefitted from the trademark spontaneity that has always been always characterized Eschenbach, who seems understandably more relaxed now than he was in his Philadelphia days. For three-quarters of its length, in addition to being beautifully and often eloquently played, the work was paced with keen understanding. I was disappointed only in the finale.

At three points—the transition from scherzo to finale (twice over, when the finale’s exposition is observed, as it correctly was on this occasion), and then again when the ghost of the scherzo leads to the corresponding transition—there is a need for the music to broaden out for at least a few measures like a stream debouching into the plain. Beethoven’s metronome markings make the distinction clear, and the first few measures demand it, to allow a piccolo, a contrabassoon, and three trombones, here making their first appearance in the symphonic literature, time to ‘speak’.

In this performance, however, the tempo remained essentially unmodified from the reprise of the scherzo through to the end of the symphony, and I found it curious that the necessary nuances of tempo should be pretty thoroughly ignored by a conductor who had been so meticulous in ensuring that the second of each of the pairs of fermatas (pauses) in the first movement’s main theme should always be longer than the first. Riccardo Muti, notably, used to get all these details right. And Eschenbach, despite the overall conviction and indeed majesty of his interpretation, was not alone in missing one of them, for many celebrated conductors, perhaps most egregiously Bruno Walter, were guilty of similar omissions.

Bernard Jacobson

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