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S & H International Concert Reviews

Philadelphia Music Directors Past, Manqué, and Present, Bernard Jacobson reviews some recent concerts.


The first two months of 2004 have presented Philadelphia concert-goers with a fascinating cavalcade of conductors intimately associated with their orchestra. First of all, recent incumbent music director Wolfgang Sawallisch was on the podium for two weeks. He was followed by the one that got away – Sir Simon Rattle, whom the management pursued with perhaps more enthusiasm than discretion when it began its search for Sawallisch’s successor; Rattle has nevertheless remained on cordial terms with the orchestra, turning almost into a sort of unofficial principal guest conductor, and he was back towards the end of January for another three-week stint. Next came Christoph Eschenbach, who – warmly praised by Rattle himself – took over the leadership last September, and who led off his ambitiously programmed five-season Mahler festival with the biggest of all the composer’s symphonies, the Third, surrounding it with a variety of stimulating ancillary events.

Sawallisch’s two programs comprised first the Bruckner Fifth Symphony and then Beethoven’s Fourth together with that composer’s complete incidental music to Egmont. He conducted from a sitting position, and looked somewhat frail. This did not prevent a clear representation of his familiar conducting characteristics, which, centered as they are on a fairly dispassionate interpretative approach and a disinclination for extremes in such spheres as dynamic, I personally find less than compelling. The fugal passages in Bruckner’s compendious finale, in particular, betrayed Sawallisch’s curious tendency to sound hurried even while arguably pacing the music too slowly – even his widely admired Strauss seems to me seriously lacking in amplitude and sheer breadth. Nor were the two Beethoven works, neither of which started quite together, much more impressive. Still, Sawallisch’s many admirers obviously enjoyed themselves, especially those who were hearing Bruckner’s Fifth for the first time and were understandably bowled over by the work itself, and their affection for the 80-year-old German conductor was evident in the warmth of the ovations that greeted each performance.

Rattle in his turn offered repertoire ranging from Chopin and Wagner, by way of several other late 19th and early 20th century composers, to Messiaen (another emphatic focus of Eschenbach’s first season as music director) and Hans Werner Henze. The latter was represented, in the first Rattle week, by the United States premiere of his Tenth Symphony, which is full of typically alluring Henze-esque sonorities and textures, but on first acquaintance (and without benefit of score) I found somewhat impenetrable in terms of formal structure; as a keen admirer of the composer, I hope to make more of the piece on repeated hearings. This program ended with the Brahms Second Symphony – and thereby hangs a tale. The Philadelphians sounded curiously out of sorts in what emerged as a rather perfunctory reading, short both of musical illumination and of the strength of bass sonorities essential in Brahms. It so happened that, just a few days later, an easy 100-mile journey northwards provided the chance to hear that same symphony under the baton of Sawallisch’s predecessor, Riccardo Muti, who, since leaving Philadelphia in 1992, has been taken warmly into the affections of the New York Philharmonic and its audiences. Preceding the work with a delectable, playfully nuanced Schubert Rosamunde overture and a revelatory group of Mozart arias superbly sung by Thomas Quasthoff, Muti showed again what a magnificent Brahmsian he is. And it was particularly revealing to hear his treatment of the first movement’s exposition repeat (which Rattle did not observe), as he cast new light on the material by selecting different facets for emphasis the second time around – which is, after all, a large part of the purpose of repeats in general.

Philadelphia’s other two weeks of Rattle found conductor and orchestra happily restored to their collaborative best. A powerful reading of the Sibelius Second Symphony was the highlight of their second program, the actual sound (heard from almost exactly the same seats) inexplicably transformed from the anemic quality it had shown in Brahms. An all-French concluding program featured Rinat Shaham in a sensuous and stylish performance of Ravel’s Shéhérazade (though this gifted young mezzo would do well to beware of excessive swaying and gesturing on the concert platform if she wants to avoid undermining vocal security and interpretative concentration) and finished with the local premiere of Messiaen’s last orchestral work, Éclairs sur l’Au-delà. I am probably in a minority in finding this to be one of the late master’s less attractive large-scale pieces. There are moments of magic, but also too many long stretches of bald chord-progressions unadorned by the slightest trace of contrapuntal interest. But it was played up to the hilt, with some climaxes awesome enough to set even a sceptic’s nerves tingling.

For me, it is peculiarly touching, three decades after I served on the panel of judges for the John Player Conducting Competition and thus had the luck to play a part in launching the then 19-year-old Rattle’s career, to see the enthusiasts in the Kimmel Center’s spacious lobby lining up for the last-minute ticket rush to hear the world-renowned maestro he has now become. A couple of weeks later, there were even more fans on hand waiting patiently on the chance of hearing Christoph Eschenbach set out on his Mahler exploration – the most convincing answer to any doubts I may have had about whether the world really needed another Mahler festival. This one had actually started with a symposium, open free to the public, for which the management had enterprisingly flown over from Paris the greatest living Mahler expert, Henry-Louis de La Grange, author of a multi-volume biography of the composer, who both in the symposium and in a richly detailed pre-concert talk before the Third Symphony performances demonstrated wit, charm, and meticulous scholarship in an equilibrium that is today sadly rare.

It is good to be able to report that the actual performance of the Third Symphony was of an equally comprehensive excellence. I should not be fulfilling my critical responsibilities if I failed to mention that, while beautifully played, the trumpet that did service for the offstage post-horn in the third movement was not a really satisfactory substitute for that difficult but romantic instrument. For the rest, however, Eschenbach was as impeccable as he was passionate. He paced the work with total mastery and conviction, the orchestra (together with the American Boychoir and the women of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale) gave its all, and the audience greeted their combined efforts with a nearly ten-minute-long ovation of un-Philadelphian rapture and abandon. The mezzo-soprano soloist too, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, was marvelously secure and sumptuous of tone. As if all this was not enough, she and Eschenbach came back on stage after a mere few minutes’ rest for another of the music director’s innovations, which he brought with him from his previous post as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s summer festival at Ravinia – a postlude recital, which on this occasion featured two songs each by Mozart, Schumann, and Brahms. Understandably fractionally less well sung than the Mahler had been, it was still balm to the ears and the heart, embracing as it did such great Lieder as "Abendempfindung an Laura," "Widmung," and "Von ewiger Liebe," and – in the Mozart above all – Eschenbach showed that his touch as a pianist remains at once as delicate and as firm as his way with the baton.

Bernard Jacobson




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