Eschenbach’s Bruckner Lifts the Spirit and Nourishes the Soul

GermanyGermany    Rihm, Bruckner : Tzimon Barto (piano), Münchner 3Philharmoniker / Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Philharmonie, Munich, 27.3.2015. (MC)National Symphony Orchestra 2013 European Tour

Rihm: Piano Concerto No. 2
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (1st version from 1894, without unfinished finale)


It’s a couple of years since I last attended a concert by the Münchner Philharmoniker – an eventful period which has seen the late Lorin Maazel resign as music director through ill-heath and Valery Gergiev become Chefdirigent. But it was Christoph Eschenbach taking the baton for a fascinating double bill, opening with the Munich premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Piano Concerto No. 2  and also featuring Bruckner’s valedictory Symphony No. 9 in its original three movement 1894 version.

Wolfgang Rihm riding high as the beneficiary of a healthy number of commissions has recently won the world’s richest composition prize the $100,000 Grawemeyer Award for his orchestral work IN-SCHRIFT 2. I love to hear works by Rihm in concert and in recent years I have heard several performances and especially recall Time Chant II given by soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck at Berlin in 2011; a work that felt rather overlong. By contrast in 2014 I greatly admired Ernster Gesang performed by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann in Dresden and also IN-SCHRIFT 2 by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Péter Eötvös at Berlin.

Tzimon Barto was tonight’s soloist in Rihm’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a work completed in 2014 that I would describe as firmly tonal and post-Romantic in style. The work was a joint commission by the Salzburg Festspiel Fund, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra. It was pianist Tzimon Barto and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra who gave the world premiere at the 2014 Salzburg Festival under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach. Approaching thirty minutes in length the concerto is cast in two continuous movements and required a large body of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. The first movement Andante, cantabile, scorrevole, inquieto – Adagio takes around eleven minutes to perform and the longer second movement is marked (attacca) Rondo, Allegro ma non troppo. There is always something interesting happening with Rihm’s music and I was fascinated by the often brisk piano figurations almost all played throughout in the high register. Typically the writing recurrently increased in dramatic weight and anxiety correspondingly taking on a restless rather sinister character which then lessened, although the tension was still maintained. Considerable listener concentration was needed and about only a third of the way through I did notice audience members begin to fidget, attention spent.

Torment and anguish plagued Bruckner whilst writing his Ninth Symphony, a score he intended to dedicate to God (Dem lieben Gott) but one he never lived to complete. Despite the physical and mental instability of Bruckner’s final years his breathtaking writing feels remarkably assured, technically daring and harmonically formidable. Undaunted by the challenge, the Münchner Philharmoniker, with its long tradition of playing Bruckner, under Maestro Eschenbach tackled the awesome structures with a lofty magnificence conveying a rich orchestral sonority splendidly in unison. Eschenbach exercised masterful control of dynamics that culminated in thrilling climaxes of remarkable potency. On more than one occasion I could feel the surging orchestral force of the monumental climaxes pushing me back into the seat followed by a satisfying feeling of relief as the tension relaxed. I  noticed that the numerous orchestral pauses felt rather more marked than I have become accustomed to. Gratifying was the amount of fine detail that Eschenbach’s interpretation revealed, especially in the dozen glorious woodwind – a feature so often clouded on recordings. In addition it felt as if the blazing fifteen strong brass section, including four Wagner tubas, had been dipped in liquid gold. Also in remarkable form was the large Munich string section supplying an elevated standard of playing rarely achieved. Characterised by the harrowing emotion of the Adagio, the effect of the string playing was at times spine tingling.

Paying due homage to Bruckner, it was a spellbinding performance by the exceptional Münchner Philharmoniker that lifted the spirit and nourished the soul.

Michael Cookson

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