The genuine artistry of Christoph Eschenbach could not have been more apparent Saturday night as he led the National Symphony Orchestra in a searing account of Bruckner's Fourth at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Given that this was the final of three performances, the tight level ensemble playing was not surprising. But this was more than a case of an orchestra fully comfortable with the notes, a conductor at ease with the score.
The overused (I should know -- I use it often enough) word "spiritual" came to mind as Eschenbach and the NSO dug into Bruckner's sound-world. There was something joyful, too, in the most radiant moments, as well as something extra-deep and dark behind those thunderous brass themes that keep springing up in this symphony.
The conductor's tempos felt right -- terrifically urgent in the Scherzo; spacious, but always with a firm pulse, in the rest. His phrasing was alive with dynamic and rhythmic nuances throughout. And in the finale, Eschenbach offered a masterful demonstration of crescendo-building, drawing compelling gradations of sonic power from the orchestra.
(You would have felt that coda even more if the acoustics were not so darn dull. Is it just me? I am convinced that the NSO is at a disadvantage in the hall, which robs even most refulgent Brucknerian chord of that last, great second or so of reverberation.)
It was a great night for principal horn Abel Pereira and the rest of the brass section. Lots of color from the woodwinds, too, and quite a bit of plushness from the strings, especially the violas.
There was admirable playing in the first half of the program, devoted to Mahler's sublime Ruckert Lieder, featuring contralto Nathalie Stutzmann.
Her voice was sometimes swamped even by the reduced complement of players, and her tone, with its limited vibrato, sounded a little cold. But the overriding impression was of a vocal artist connecting (here I go again) spiritually with music and text.
"Liebst du um Schonheit," for example, emerged naturally and subtly. Stutzmann phrased "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" with particular care, tapping into the poetry's mix of resignation and inner peace, all the while eloquently partnered by Eschenbach and the orchestra.
All in all, a memorable night for the NSO and its unusually gifted music director, who, to the regret of some of us, has only one more season left as the orchestra's music director.