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S & H International Concert Review

Mahler & Shostakovich, Matthias Goerne (baritone), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, March 12 and 13, 2004 (BH)


Mahler: Blumine

Mahler: Five Songs on Texts of Friedrich Rückert

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93


In yet another absorbing union of seemingly disparate elements, Christoph Eschenbach found immense stores of loneliness in the riotous Shostakovich Tenth Symphony, linking it to Mahler’s gently austere Rückert Lieder. Although the two composers could not be more different, they share a sense of being outsiders – of not fitting in – and Eschenbach’s illumination of these qualities in each work was telling.

Matthias Goerne was in eerily thoughtful form for the Rückert Lieder, carefully shaping Mahler’s gorgeous phrases and offering soul-stirring tone. In Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I Have Lost Track of the World), Goerne’s expertly discreet dimuendo on Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen, ob sie mich für gestorben halt (And for me it is of no concern at all if it treats me as dead), made him seem dwarfed by humanity, like a tiny person set adrift on an enormous iceberg. And if on the first night the orchestral accompaniment seemed a bit hesitant, the second night offered no such anxiety (one of the advantages of hearing a concert twice). To close the cycle, Goerne did a strong and starkly effective Um Mitternacht (At Midnight) with its spare orchestration.

Many people think the Tenth is Shostakovich’s greatest symphony, and in performances like these one might think so, its vast structures alternately moving and thrilling. (One friend mused if John Williams might have been inspired by this piece for his score to Raiders of the Lost Ark.) In the opening, I loved the way Philadelphia’s low strings rumbled and murmured, eventually giving way to the first outcry from the orchestra’s terrific trombones.

The violent Allegro, which Eschenbach launched not quite as blisteringly fast as Antonio Pappano did with the New York Philharmonic a few weeks ago, nevertheless still made my heart catch in my throat. The impact of this movement can be quite physical, with the orchestra racing along like a demon and each section in piercing interplay with the others. If these four minutes are widely considered to be a portrait of Stalin, Eschenbach’s podium posture only helped, with his arms darting toward the violins, urging them to make ferociously stabbing accents, and on the last note suddenly folding his arms rigid, straight down at his sides.

Eschenbach seemed to point to the quizzical, aching third movement as the symphony’s core, despite the hyperactive passages in the movements on either side of it. Although lots of snarling and nervousness surround the despair, somehow the poignant moments emerged as the most prominent. Some heavenly solo work also helped Eschenbach’s ideas spring to life, such as concertmaster David Kim’s final short, almost out-of-breath phrases, tossed out as if sarcasm and energy were waning. The percussion work was also expertly articulated, especially by Angela Zator Nelson whose gentle tam-tam strokes only increased the forlorn atmosphere.

In the final movement, the composer’s musical signature, D-E-flat-C-B, peppers the landscape seemingly over and over, and late in the game following a reprise of some of the blood-pumping music from the Allegro, the entire orchestra loudly hammers it out in unison, as if to silence all argument. Eschenbach underlined the phrase by slowing down dramatically, and the phrase was capped with yet another gorgeous crash on that gong. Others may like this motif presented "straight" (i.e., in tempo) and I generally do, too – but Eschenbach’s emphatic approach worked just fine. All praise, too, to the orchestra’s clarinet, and the bassoons, which introduced the final dazzling pages with fountains of forced jollity.

The concert opened with Blumine, originally designed as the second movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, and what a lovely piece this is. The notes indicated that it had not been performed in Philadelphia since 1983 – perhaps a bit shocking since its eight minutes, with Mahler at his most intimate, are easy to enjoy. David Bilgers played its key trumpet solo with pastoral serenity, his tone hovering sweetly above the ensemble. Speaking (uninvited) for the concert-going public, twenty-one years would seem to be far too long to wait for this tiny enchantment.

Bruce Hodges

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