Gustav Mahler's music speaks to certain conductors in a distinctively personal way. An extra spark animates their performances. An extra depth comes through as well. Christoph Eschenbach is one of those conductors, as reiterated by his riveting account of Mahler's Third with the National Symphony Orchestra over the weekend at the Kennedy Center.
Eschenbach can be counted on to deliver individualistic interpretations of almost anything, of course. But with Mahler, he seems to put an especially firm stamp on the notes as he seeks to uncover the heart and generate the sound world of the composer. He did so again Saturday night.
The epic Third opens with a bracing, almost chaotic assortment of themes and incidents; proceeds through episodes of folksy charm and rapt philosophizing; and ends with an extended, luminous Adagio that seems at once intensely human and downright divine.
Not surprisingly, Eschenbach took his time with all of this. Tempos were generally spacious, though wonderfully rushed in a few key spots -- the coda to the first movement, for example, had a terrific drive. And rubato was finely judged throughout, particularly in the second movement.
I wish there hadn't been such long pauses between movements, especially the one before the finale, but that proved a minor matter. Overall, the focus remained firm, the sense of involvement palpable, as the long work unfolded.
And the orchestra maintained remarkable technical cohesiveness and communicative power throughout.
I know that denigrating the NSO has been, in some corners, a popular pastime for decades (blasting its past two music directors something of a blood sport), but what I heard Saturday was a firmly honed ensemble with a warm sheen in the string tone; abundant color in the woodwinds; sensitive timpani and percussion; and, above all, supple, tireless brass.
A few highlights: Craig Mulcahy's eloquent trombone solo in the opening movement; William Gerlach's likewise expressive offstage cornet solo in the third movement; velvety playing by the horns and gentle phrasing from concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef that complemented the beautifully nuanced singing of distinguished mezzo Anne Sophie von Otter in the fourth movement, not to mention the superb fade-out by the lower strings at the end of that movement.
Note, too, the vibrant contributions by the Children's Chorus of Washington and women of the Choral Arts Society of Washington in the penultimate portion of the symphony, with von Otter's voice adding richly to the text.
Eschenbach lavished great care on the finale, sculpting the themes poetically and judging gradations in dynamics so that each peak was more intense than the one before. The last, long, thundering release achieved the sort of visceral impact that, for some of us, only Mahler -- aided by an inspired conductor and responsive orchestra -- can deliver.
Speaking of thundering, that's what the audience reaction sounded like after the last chord died away. Nice to know I wasn't the only one shaken and stirred.