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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Mozart and Strauss: Emanuel Ax, Richard Woodhams, Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, 21 January (BJ)

A major snowstorm having been promised for the weekend, I switched my tickets from Saturday evening to Friday afternoon, because this was one program I definitely did not want to miss. The most delectable of the four orchestral programs in Christoph Eschenbach’s month-long Late Great Works festival, it framed Strauss’ Oboe Concerto and Metamorphosen between Mozart’s Zauberflöte overture and his last piano concerto, in B-flat major, K. 595. Nor did the event in any way fall short of what the bill promised.

It was evident at once in the overture that the orchestra had already settled down well in Eschenbach’s new – that is, classic–seating arrangement, with first and second violins ranged to his left and right, and the basses over on the left behind the cellos. Though without any hint of the cloying over-ripeness in which Eugene Ormandy, for half a century, used to bedizen his Mozart, the tutti tone was rich, warm, and solid, while the offbeat accents in the fugato statement of the main Allegro theme were at once lithely and unexaggeratedly pointed. At the other end of the program, the concerto blossomed under the hands of Emanuel Ax, whom you might call a natural rather than a doctrinaire stylist. From his own experience as a pianist, Eschenbach knows the piece from the inside, and he dovetailed every orchestral entry neatly with the contributions of the soloist, whose light yet never brittle tone was ideal for this understated yet poignant music, and who offered some delicate melodic embellishment where appropriate and, especially in the finale, a richly varied touch at all dynamic levels, particularly toward the pianissimo end of the spectrum.

The juxtaposition of the two Strauss works proved to be highly illuminating. They share an important thematic element, a figure of four notes on the same pitch followed by a descending scale – but it is as if the Oboe Concerto views this material from a standpoint of luxuriant serenity, whereas in Metamorphosen it informs Strauss’ deeply pessimistic artistic reaction, at the end of the Second World War, to the devastation of the heritage he held dear. In Richard Woodhams, the Philadelphia Orchestra possesses a principal oboist without peer: his was a magical performance, the sound both opulent and cleanly focused, the phrasing full of vivacity and charm. Then, after intermission, Eschenbach crafted as eloquent and cohesive a reading of Metamorphosen as I can remember hearing. With its intricate scoring for 23 solo strings, the piece can sound muddy if performed with anything but perfect intonation, but that is exactly what the Philadelphia Orchestra’s expert string players gave it on this occasion. The opening paragraphs had an almost visible sunset glow, and as Germany’s dark night spread its shadows over the music, the final explicit quotation from the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica took on a fatefulness as emotionally searing as it was musically inevitable.

Bernard Jacobson




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)