Eschenbach and Dresdner Staatskapelle impress Cardiff with Brahms and Tchaikovsky

Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Brahms: Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), Staatskapelle Dresden, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor) St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 12.5.2011 (GPu)

Schumann, Overture, The Bride of Messina
Tchaikovsky, Rococo Variations
Brahms, Symphony No.1

Christoph Eschenbach is one of those individuals whose life and work seems to embrace more than matters of personal fulfilment or, heaven forbid, mere ‘fame’. In the early stages of his career his abilities were nurtured and encouraged by, amongst others, Karajan and Szell. As pianist, first, and since the 1970s as a conductor he has absorbed and articulated major strands of the Western musical tradition and its performance and, at the same time, committed himself to new music, to music that extends and expands that tradition. He has also done immensely valuable work as a kind of ‘mentor’ to young musicians whose abilities have impressed him, offering them ongoing guidance and, quite simply, opportunities for high-profile performances which would bring them the necessary attention. Amongst those to have benefitted from Eschenbach’s encouragement are Renée Fleming, Tzimon Barto and Lang Lang (who continues to consult him and study with him). A recent beneficiary of Eschenbach’s attention has been the German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich (b.1985). Although this current tour with Eschenbach and the Staatskapelle Dresden, marks Eslchenbroich’s solo debut in the UK, he has already kept very distinguished company, including concerto performances with Valery Gergiev and Semyon Bychkov and chamber concerts with Helene Grimaud, Renaud Capucon and Gideon Kremer. In the summer of 2011 he will be playing all the Beethoven sonatas with Christoph Eschenbach (as pianist) at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival. At his Welsh debut he was the impressive soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations.

There was grace and relaxation in abundance in this performance of Tchaikovsky’s intriguing work, surely one of the best and most inventive variation-form works of its time. Eschenbach’s conducting caught the idiom perfectly, in its overlaying and interplay of romantic sensibility and quasi-classical form; Elschenbroich’s work was expressive but quite without excessive inflation. The brief orchestral introduction set the tone perfectly and delightfully, and Eschenbach’s support of the soloist was exemplary throughout. In the third variation (the work was played in the familiar ‘adaptation’ by the original soloist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, as published in 1889, rather than in Tchaikovsky’s original), in C major, Elschenbroich’s work had both impressive technical assurance and a movingly contemplative beauty. The fourth variation (andante grazioso) was full of wit and playfulness and the cadenzas of the fifth variation were strikingly handled, invested with real individuality. The closing scherzando variation had a delicious effervescence. My first impressions of Elschenbroich were thoroughly positive and I look forward to hearing him again, preferably in a work of greater emotional depth than these Tchaikovskyan variations. I suspect that those who attend the Schleswig-Holstein Festival will be in for a treat when Elschenbroich and Eschenbach tackle the Beethoven cello sonatas.

Enjoyable though the Rococo Variations were, the real substance of the evening came with a very fine performance of Brahms’ First Symphony, a performance that exuded authority and passion. The opening of the first movement was heavily laden with tragic foreboding, the pedal note in the basses seeming to just about hold in check both the upward aspirations of the strings and the descending searchings of the winds. As the movement progressed one was struck by both the weight of sound at the bottom end of the orchestra and by the larger transparency of texture (which can often get lost in performances of the Brahms symphonies). Here – and elsewhere – the playing of the French horns was outstanding. Eschenbach was not afraid of substantial contrasts of tempo, but these didn’t feel merely forced and, rather, served the emotional power of the music very persuasively. Intensity relaxed, without melodrama but with the hint of other possibilities, as the movement drew to a close, with the slightest hint of hope in the closing C major chord. In the opening of the andante the tonal weight of the strings was strikingly beautiful as they unfolded the initial melody in E major. Eschenbach’s was a long-breathed reading, its air of impersonal serenity – as if the music spoke of something bestowed externally rather than the product of mere psychological contentment – enhanced by exquisite work from the oboe of Bern Schober, those horns again (notably Jochen Ubbelonde and Robert Langbein) and the solo violin of leader Kai Vogler. In the third movement Eschenbach and the orchestra delineated a different kind of benignity, something more comfortably pastoral, more individual and personal, than that of the second movement; Christoph Eschenbach’s control of dynamics within and between these two movements was masterly. In the final movement there was a remarkable sense of spaciousness and scale, and a great structural clarity. Eschenbach brought out very clearly and effectively the way in which the opening’s recollection (though that word is too comfortable) of the first movement’s tragic gravity is contested by the pizzicato strings and the horn melody, ushering in a mood one might call solemn rather than tragic. When this introductory adagio was over, one felt that the famous echo of Beethoven’s Ninth was a well-earned and productive allusion, part of the musical landscape Brahms had travelled across to get here and of which honesty required acknowledgement. As momentum increased, and as Joy (in the substantial sense of the word – “the source of light immortal” – used by such Romantics as Schiller and Coleridge) took over, Eschenbach resisted any temptation to mere speed; rather the emphasis was on a majesty of mood, a fulfilment, which retained weight and seriousness (even if mere solemnity had now disappeared). This was an utterly persuasive, compelling performance.

The evening had begun – it now seemed a long time ago – with a performance of Schumann’s relatively little heard Overture to his unwritten opera Die Braut von Messina (another Schiller connection!). The playing here had seemed largely routine (but then, it has to be confessed, much of the overture is somewhat ‘routine’). But if that was a disappointing opening to the concert, any such feelings had wholly disappeared by the time one had heard the ensuing grace of the Tchaikovsky and the disciplined intensity of the Brahms.

Glyn Pursglove