Day 24 of the George Enescu Festival: Christoph Eschenbach and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

RomaniaRomania George Enescu Festival 2021 [8] – Korngold, Bruckner: Renaud Capuçon (violin), Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Christoph Eschenbach (conductor). Sala Palatului, Bucharest, 20.9.2021. (SS)

Renaud Capuçon (violin) & Christoph Eschenbach (conductor) (c) Alex Damian

Korngold – Violin Concerto in D major Op.35
Bruckner – Symphony No.2 in C minor

Now that it has become more acceptable to like the opulent, heart-on-sleeve music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, more of his works are breaking through – like the Symphony in F sharp major, which has just been performed at the BBC Proms to rave reviews. The same has happened over the last 15 years with his opera Die tote Stadt, now a fixture in numerous houses across Europe and further afield (the Vienna State Opera will bring out its Willy Decker production for a sixth revival early next year). But the Violin Concerto has been a popular work for even longer, despite being derided by one US critic as ‘more corn than gold’ when Jascha Heifetz premiered it in 1947. This wasn’t enough to torpedo its prospects for good, however, and a strong comeback over the last 30 years has seen the work’s discography expand exponentially. The world’s finest violinists now line up to perform Korngold’s concerto, and over the last decade in Vienna I must have heard it at least 5 or 6 times in concert with soloists such as James Ehnes, Leonidas Kavakos and Arabella Steinbacher.

This was already my second time hearing Renaud Capuçon play the solo and he threw himself into it more forcefully than I remember either from the first time or his more reflective 2009 recording with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, while sacrifying none of the lyricism and sweetness of tone that mark his interpretation as the most French-sounding Korngold Violin Concerto in the discography. Overall, however, it was a pretty underwhelming interpretation, albeit through no fault of the soloist. Christoph Eschenbach and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra gave a claggy, autopiloted account of the orchestral accompaniment that dragged the whole thing down just as Capuçon was trying to make it soar. In the first movement he kept building his phrases, but the orchestral sound never intensified along with him, and even though Eschenbach sustained Capuçon’s breakneck tempo in the last movement, the energy between orchestra and soloist remained stubbornly mismatched.

Bruckner’s Second Symphony in its second version (1877) followed, and while this didn’t sound as woolly as the Korngold the playing was still pretty lumbering (admittedly, not a fatal shortcoming in Bruckner). Where there were rare flashes of drama – in the blazing codas of the outer movements or the brass entries in the Andante – they tended to come out of nothing and, in the Andante, go back to nothing. This was pedestrian Bruckner indeed: the style sounded all right and the balance between strings, woodwind and brass was well judged, but apart from that, tedium reigned. Eschenbach can be a hit-and-miss conductor and I like his hits well enough – the most ferocious Mahler 6 I have heard live, among others – that I gladly accept his occasional misses. In fairness, this Bruckner 2 would probably have sounded fine in the context of a routine concert played at home on a wet Wednesday afternoon. But for an appearance at a major international festival, the playing and conducting in both halves was much too drab and faceless.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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