Chemistry between Christoph Eschenbach and National Symphony sizzles in Mahler's Fifth

Christoph Eschenbach wrapped up his first few weeks as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra with a terrific affirmation of how much he brings to the job. (My Sunday article on Eschenbach addresses some of those assets.)

The chemistry between conductor and ensemble Friday night at the Kennedy Center could be easily felt in a graceful, nimble account of Mozart's Symphony No. 34 and produced downright sizzling results in Mahler's Fifth.

It was one of the most emotionally fulfilling performances of that Mahler work I've heard live in a concert hall, one of the few that could measure up in interpretive depth to cherished recordings.

Eschenbach took delight in all of those things that some of us Mahler nuts crave, and some folks look down upon -- exaggerated rhythmic contrasts, from glacial to supersonic, and lots of rubato within tempos; enormous dynamic range, from mere whisper to cataclysmic; no end of expressive richness throughout, so that each melody, even each melodic fragment, can register as vital and revealing.

How affecting it was to hear the sad theme that weaves through the first two movements shaped with such breadth and depth. And how rewarding to hear

the famous Adagietto paced spaciously, rather than with the cool, detached propulsion now more widely favored.

No Mahler symphony, it seems to me, is an abstract musical puzzle to be put together methodically and purely intellectually. There should always be some element of the unexpected, the offbeat (so to speak), and maybe a little of the unnerving. Eschenbach's Mahler sounded wonderfully unsafe, volatile, very personal. Just the way I like it.  

The conductor drew some mighty impressive playing from the NSO. The few ragged edges (most significantly, fuzzy articulation in the last measures of the first movement) mattered little in light of so much vivid, communicative playing. It was a particularly great night for the strings, but strengths could be felt in each of the sections, notably the percussion. Excellent trumpet and horn solos also hit home.

During the ovations, the musicians insisted, as they had a couple weeks ago after performing Beethoven's Ninth with him, that Eschenbach enjoy a bow to himself, and they joined heartily in the applause. Such gestures may disappear, of course, over time, as the relationship between music director and orchestra develops (Eschenbach isn't due back in DC until January), but it sure looks to me like one more sign that things have started off awfully well.

PHOTO (by Margot Ingoldsby Schulman) COURTESY OF NSO

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