Eschenbach and the LPO: A Potent Combination

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schumann and Beethoven: Baiba Skride (violin), Daniel Müller-Schott (cello), Lars Vogt (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.11.2012 (MB)

Schumann:  Overture: Der Braut von Messina, op.100
Beethoven:  Concerto, for piano, violin, and cello in C major, op.56
Schumann:  Symphony no.2 in C major, op.61

Christoph Eschenbach is a regular visitor to the London Philharmonic, but I think this was the first time I caught them together. I certainly hope that it will not be the last, for it is quite a while since I have heard the LPO on such good form. There was no nonsense about scaling the orchestra down (fifteen firsts down to eight double basses for the Schumann works); that cannot but have helped. But the dark, convincingly German tone Eschenbach drew from the orchestra was just as important, probably more so. Schumann’s Bride of Messina Overture made for an excellent opening, its introduction full of tension, slow but quite the opposite of staid, as if on a coiled spring. The main Allegro was properly tormented, the prominent piccolo part reminiscent of Beethoven’s use of the instrument. A warmly lyrical clarinet second subject offered balm to the soul, though it was soon undercut. This is the sort of piece – and performance – for which the word ‘Romanticism’ might have been intended, and it is a piece we should hear more often.

The opening of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto nevertheless registered an increase in voltage. What a joy it was to hear the LPO sounding so darkly German in tone, miles away from the quasi-‘authentic’ experiments of its music director. Romantic warmth from the cello, cultivation from the violin, obstinate ruggedness from the piano: those were the initial impressions gleaned from the solo instruments’ first entries. Character, then, was portrayed, though it was amenable to transformation according to Beethoven’s demands. Sometimes I felt that Lars Vogt’s piano playing was ingratiating, and could also be rather neutral in tone, but at least it was not sentimentalised. Though he did nothing to upstage his colleagues, Daniel Müller-Schott’s performance of the cello part was the star turn for me. Eschenbach’s handling of the orchestra was equally important though, drive coming from within, or better from below (the bass line). The slow movement opened with a sweetly intense solo from Müller-Schott. The trio, including Baiba Skride’s violin thereafter blended uncommonly well in an ideally poised account that gave Beethoven all the time he needed, without ever coming close to dragging. Orchestral depth was present where it mattered. Müller-Schott’s transition to the finale was finely judged. The movement fairly danced, lacking nothing to start with in Beethovenian vigour, but fading of the latter made it overstay its welcome. There should not be a suspicion of note-spinning; here there was, if only slightly.

Schumann’s Second Symphony received a memorable account, revealing Eschenbach and the LPO at their finest. I was very much in two minds for the first half of the first movement – but that intrigued me. At first, I wondered whether Eschenbach’s direction was two four-square, playing to the score’s potential weaknesses; however, Eschenbach took the high road of making a virtue out of them. If his reading lacked the easy flow of, say, Wolfgang Sawallisch, then rhythmic and motivic insistence told their own story, even when underlined to an extent I should have thought undesirable in theory. That was all the more the case when themes were tossed between parts, Eschenbach’s division of the violins paying off handsomely, though the woodwind proved equally distinguished in that respect. This movement often sounded like an uphill struggle, even swimming against the tide, yet it held the attention and, more than that, compelled. And there was a truly Beethovenian spirit of triumph to the recapitulation.

The scherzo was taken at quite a lick, almost insanely so, but Eschenbach’s tempo held no fears for the LPO. The disturbing hesitance of the trios – a matter of interpretative strategy – painted the outer sections in greater relief. Even when Schumann sang, it was disquieting. A long-breathed account of a true slow movement banished any thoughts of the mere intermezzo one sometimes hears. The LPO’s playing was darkly beautiful, benefiting from the surest of foundations in Eschenbach’s understanding of harmonic rhythm. There was, for once, not the slightest hint of ‘chamber orchestra’ condescension; this was truly symphonic, and all the better for it. A martial opening announced a finale that was anything but carefree; there was a symphonic battle yet to be done. And it was won with gloriously rich string tone. Expertly shaped, this was as resounding a rejoinder to the clarions of ‘authenticity’ as one could have hoped for, arguably more so. Amongst present conductors, Eschenbach gave Barenboim a run for his money: quite an achievement.


Mark Berry