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S & H International Concert Review

Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Mezzo-Soprano, Women of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, The American Boychoir, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, Carnegie Hall, New York City, February 23, 2004 (BH)

While the angst is still present in Mahler’s Third, to my ears it seems to be filled with slightly more sunlight than some of the other symphonies, and that was certainly the case in the intense, tender performance that Christoph Eschenbach coaxed from the Philadelphia Orchestra on Monday night. The final movement subtitled What love tells me felt as comforting as being in the company of an old friend or a beloved grandmother. After hearing Eschenbach’s performance I might even recommend this work as a starting point to someone unfamiliar with the composer (extreme length aside for a moment, and this performance came in at just under two hours), since the abundance of sheer beauty is very persuasive.

This was a pretty inspiring performance, even if tempered here and there with some intonation problems and what appeared to be scattered fatigue among the players. In the first movement, Summer marches in, the horn section made my ears stand at attention with a strong entrance, helped by some equally decisive percussion work. If later I wasn’t always convinced by some of Eschenbach’s tempi, not to mention his use of rubato, others in the audience didn’t seem to mind, and I doubt anyone was bored. Any conductor thinking about the music generally has my respect.

The woodwinds introduced the second movement sounding as bucolic as they come, but the real stars of the evening were in the brass. Nitzan Haroz, principal trombone, simply astonished me (and everyone with whom I spoke), combining accuracy and nobility in what is, as usual with Mahler, a parade of threatening high wire acts. Great artists make these stunts look ridiculously easy, and at the end of the night, Haroz received an ovation consummate with his achievement. But he wasn’t the only one. Concertmaster David Kim, whose artistry continues to make a larger and larger impression, made the most of the divine solos – and here the composer seems to dole out more than usual for the violin. And in contrast to reports I heard about his offstage "posthorn" solos in Philadelphia, David Bilger on trumpet was pretty much flawless here. Every time that far left stage door opened, his sound suffused the hall with a dreamlike nostalgia that was completely transporting. This is one of the characteristics I love about Mahler: the rapid-fire contrast between gigantic walls of sound, constructed in a way that no one else had imagined, alternating with those winsome moments that make stars out of everyone in the ensemble. When Bilger finally returned to his chair, his colleagues grinned, quietly tapping their hands against their legs in appreciation. This was some of the most beautiful trumpet playing I’ve heard in a long time.

You could not have asked for a better soloist than Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, here in majestic form. Poised in the center of the very back row of the choirs, she was able to flood the hall with Joy is deeper than heartache! – and made me believe every word, with Richard Woodhams’ oboe adding a sensual accompaniment. Sometimes this vocal part can sound faint or timid, but not here, where her focus made a relatively brief movement persist much longer in the memory. And the two choirs, huge in number but used oh-so-sparingly, created a smiling interlude between the imposing half-hour pillars that begin and end this piece.

The sublime final movement can sound frightfully sentimental and redundant in the wrong hands, but Eschenbach’s deliberate pace – yes, too slow for some – worked for me, and despite some intonation problems, the emotion came through piercingly clear. This movement seems like a devil to keep in tune, and I don’t like reporting that even the Philadelphia musicians seemed stymied from being able to deliver a "perfect" performance (if there even is such an animal). But nevertheless my mind often departed from the physical production of the music onstage and began to wander to more spiritual plateaus, and from the silence of those around me, I could sense the same happening elsewhere. It is a tribute to Eschenbach’s intelligence and magnetism that most of the glitches seemed unimportant and faded into the background, with his unflagging intensity as the compass.

Bruce Hodges




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