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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, Verizon Hall, 6 January 2005 (BJ)



The Philadelphia Orchestra began the New Year with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It took its place midway through the second season of Christoph Eschenbach’s four-year conspectus of all the Mahler symphonies, and also inaugurated his month-long “Late Great Works Festival,” which in the course of January ranges also through music by Berio, Wagner, Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, and Tchaikovsky.


The evening marked a fresh start in another way too: Eschenbach reseated the orchestra, with first and second violins disposed respectively left and right in the classic configuration, and the basses over to the conductor’s left behind the cellos. There could hardly have been a more appropriate moment to try this layout, because of the highly distinctive manner in which Mahler treats the two violin sections in this work. They are thought of not really as “firsts” and “seconds,” but as two co-equal groups. Many important thematic statements are confided to the seconds, including that of the principal theme of the first movement, and there are also frequent touches of antiphonal writing pitting the two groups in rapid-fire mutual emulation.


It was not the violins only that benefited from the new arrangement, for it was clear that textures throughout the orchestra were enhanced by it, probably in part because the woodwind and brass sections could hear more of what was going on around and in front of them. But there was much more than just the orchestral layout (which I hope will be made permanent) to enjoy in this stunning performance. Artfully paced from beginning to end, inflected by turns with intense passion and bitter sarcasm, it was brought to its conclusion with a wonderful sense of the peaceful acceptance of mortality.


After the dramatic upheavals and disruptions of the first movement, after the implacable, poker-faced bitterness of the second, and after the vertiginous frenzy of the third, it was the final Adagio that was fittingly left to plumb the innermost depths of Mahler’s introspection. Having begun the symphony at an unusually slow tempo, Eschenbach took the Ländler-ish second movement unusually briskly and the Rondo Burleske at a daring clip, thus intensifying the effect of the often nearly motionless finale.


For some years before Eschenbach took over as music director in 2003, it was rare, except when outstanding guest conductors were present, to hear the orchestra play really softly. Now, in the long pianissimo stretches of this Adagio, the soul-searching quietness was a benison – and for much of the movement even the habitually bronchial Philadelphia audience was silent. It must have been almost a half-minute after the last notes had faded away before the applause began, but then its enthusiasm showed how deeply Eschenbach’s trenchant interpretation and the orchestra’s immaculate playing had penetrated.



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)