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S & H Concert Review

Philadelphians II: Brahms & Shostakovich Gil Shaham (vln), Philadelphia Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach, Barbican, 22nd May, 2004 (MB)

The Marquess of Queensbury reputedly told Oscar Wilde (on the subject of his homosexuality), "I do not say that you are; I say that you look it". On the evidence of this second Philadelphia Orchestra concert, the Philadelphians might not be a second rate orchestra, but they sound like one.

Problems – surprising ones, and significant ones – arose too often in their performance of the symphony which completed their London tour; insecurities in both technique and intonation were ample, and were only partially exonerated by that fabled string sound, inappropriate as it was for a performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. And it was this work which caused such difficulty for both conductor and orchestra.

Quite what Eschenbach was trying to do with his performance of this symphony is an almost unanswerable question. At times it hang fire; at others it had an inescapable propulsion that was exhilarating. Often these extremes were apparent within single movements. Timings can sometimes be deceptive but in Eschenbach’s case they were everything: a first movement that lasted for almost 35 minutes (some 10 minutes slower than the norm) simply felt interminable. Where it might, in fact, have sounded inexorable it simply floundered with Shostakovich’s symphonic line taken to breaking point. This impacted on the playing – the piccolo, for example, had enormous difficulty negotiating Eschenbach’s broadness of tempi at the first movement’s close; in the Allegretto the horn calls were unfocussed and incorrectly pitched.

The whole performance was one of contradictions, some of which seemed intent on rescuing it from oblivion others of which simply sunk it further into an abyss of distortion. The central climax of the Allegretto had great rhythmic drive until Eschenbach concluded it with an unwritten ritardando (and most destructive of all a crescendo that is simply not in the score). The second section of the fourth movement (marked Allegro – and largely taken as such) had a rampant intensity – almost a burning fire – to the playing as Eschenbach pressed forward in stingendo, yet, again, the conductor sunk the tension by inserting page after page of in ritenuto markings.

There were compensations (although by no means enough to rescue the performance from outright failure): the second movement Allegro (even if it was more ‘Uncle Joe’ than despotic dictator) had diabolical weight and there was some simply fabulous pizzicato playing in the third movement which was almost tenebrous in the sound it generated. Eschenbach continually got expressive playing from the orchestra’s ‘cellos, and indeed that hallowed string sound was something to be in awe of. Yet, as so often with Shostakovich performances today, the sound was just too streamlined for it to be convincing and with such deliberately extended tempi even more so.

The question the performance raises in my mind is when does a virtuoso orchestra (and the Philadelphia Orchestra is clearly that) stop being convinced by its conductor’s vision? The lack of elasticity to the performance – and its constant loss of tension - seemed more to do with the orchestra’s unwillingness to follow Eschenbach’s baton, rather than any inability to simply play the music. Yet, this is an orchestra which only this year performed its first Lyric Symphony by Zemlinsky; modernism is hardly in its blood. The Shostakovich had neither a sense of discovery, nor a sense of honesty.

Brahms’ Violin Concerto, which opened the programme, was in a different league. Gil Shaham, sonorous of tone, gave an electrifying performance which balanced the work’s lyricism and masculinity in equal measure. A poetic second movement – with a dark-hued oboe solo – had heartfelt serenity – a sweeping contrast to the fiery third movement which Shaham played with characteristic panache.

Marc Bridle

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