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Eschenbach Conducts Brahms: Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw; Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem; Christopher Maltman, Michaela Kaune, Philadelphia Singers Chorale, Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, Verizon Hall, 4 December 2004 (BJ)

When the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts opened three Decembers ago, acoustician Russell Johnson predicted that it would take three years for the acoustics of Verizon Hall, the new home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to be fully adjusted. (This is one of those halls where Johnson has provided ample room for adjustment, in the form of resonating chambers that can be opened or closed as well as the more familiar movable baffles.) It has seemed clear, since the orchestra’s 2004/05 season opened in September, that that estimate was remarkably accurate. With the installation during the past summer of the organ console, the walls on both sides of it were solidified, and the bloom, blend, and clarity that this added to an already good sound-picture surprised and delighted music director Christoph Eschenbach and his audience alike.

Concerts in November–a lustrous Rachmaninoff Second Symphony and a characteristically individual and stirring account of the Mendelssohn E-minor Violin Concerto with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg–provided further evidence of this happy state of affairs. But the proof positive came with the spine-tingling Brahms German Requiem that opened the December schedule. I do not think I have ever heard a performance of this work that offered so ideal a balance between choral and orchestral elements. Obviously prepared with enormous skill by David Hayes, the chorus of about 140 voices sang with crystal-clear diction, a marvelous range of color, and phenomenal power–I have also never been so terrified by the remorseless tread of the second movement, the triple-time funeral march on the text Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras, as I was on this occasion. Under Eschenbach’s unfailingly sensitive direction (interestingly exercised, for once, without a baton) the Philadelphia Orchestra responded with some of its finest playing. And, magically, the sheen and refinement of the strings in particular emerged in perfect equilibrium with even the most voluminous choral fortissimos.

It should perhaps be emphasized that this was no tired reproduction of that chimerical treasure, “the Philadelphia sound.” In the days of Eugene Ormandy, or at least in the latter phases of his long tenure as music director, the Philadelphia strings did indeed display a tone-quality that was recognizably specific to this orchestra–but this was for the bad reason that the entire repertoire, from Bach and Mozart to Brahms and Mahler and Shostakovich, was performed with the same undifferentiated lushness of sound. To my gratification and that of many others, though to the disappointment of numerous adherents to what is lazily represented as “tradition,” Riccardo Muti changed all that, insisting on shaping an individual sonority for every composer he conducted. After ten years under the leadership of Wolfgang Sawallisch, who certainly maintained playing standards even though there was a persistent lack of imagination and of anything resembling a pianissimo in his performances, Eschenbach has started to make things happen again on the orchestra stage. He has been criticized for what some regard as the excessively freewheeling and unpredictable nature of his interpretations. But it is just that aspect of his music-making, as with all the great conductors of the past, that makes his performances so stimulating and rewarding. In this Brahms Requiem, responsiveness to the niceties of harmonic pulse meshed with iron control of broad formal spans and with a tonal palette that flawlessly reconciled richness, allure, and avoidance of generalized sentimentality. The result was a performance as awe-inspiring as it was profoundly, Brahmsianly consolatory.

Happily, the two soloists were of a quality to match such stirring choral and orchestral work. The young German soprano Michaela Kaune, whom I had not encountered before, performed her one cruelly taxing movement with an admirably firm line, lyrical tone, and a rare willingness to attempt true soft singing where Brahms required it. In his more extensive part, the English baritone Christopher Maltman delineated both prevailing introspection and moments of rhetoric with conviction.

Maltman also doubled as a dramatically forceful narrator in the performance of Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw that opened the evening. Eschenbach’s idea of leading without interruption from the Schoenberg into the Brahms, if less radical than Erich Leinsdorf’s fabled practice of placing the Schoenberg before Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, still constitutes the coupling of a relatively minor work with Brahms’s masterpiece. But there is a certain doctrinal appropriateness about this juxtaposition, and it paid off as a coup de théâtre, the opening of the Deutsches Requiem emerging in unearthly calm from the silence that followed Schoenberg’s fevered visions.

Bernard Jacobson


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