Some music critics I know are fond of admonishing die-hard Mahler fans to embrace emotionally cool, technically by-the-book performances, the sort generated by any number of the-way-things-should-be-done conductors. To which I say: Oh yeah? Why should I?
Give me heart-on-sleeve, rule-bending, idiosyncratically inclined Mahler interpreters any day. Give me Mahler with no end of personal touches, all sorts of tempo and dynamic gradations. Give me Mahler that rattles and surprises and awes. Give me Mahler that makes me smile one minute, a little teary the next.
In short, give me exactly what I experienced Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, when Christoph Eschenbach led the National Symphony Orchestra, soprano Golda Schultz, contralto Nathalie Stutzmann and the Washington Chorus in Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection." (There's one more performance Saturday night.)
Eschenbach, in the final couple of weeks of his seven-season tenure as NSO music director, has long struck me as to the Mahler born. He gets the big, symphony-is-a-world picture as much as the little details that make that picture so vital. He believes in this man's music, and you feel that when he conducts it. Eschenbach instinctively draws out Mahler's astounding distillation of the things that make us human, all theflaws and quirks, the intellect and instincts.
Those contrasts fuel the "Resurrection," an epic ride that looks at nothing less than life and death, ending with a glimpse of what comes after — something, Mahler suggests, that's warm and healing and right.
Eschenbach made every step of that journey visceral. What generated extra power was the way he freshened many a passage with individualistic touches.
Suspenseful episodes in the first and last movements, for example, were wonderfully elongated, adding to the tension. And the score's most delicate, intimate moments gained extraordinary poetic nuance from Eschenbach's phrasing, nowhere more so than in the gentle second movement. Here, his exquisite rubato yielded magical results, beautifully articulated by the NSO strings.
The whole orchestra seemed finely focused on the conductor's wavelength. A few woodwind or brass notes could have been smoother, but no matter. The NSO's expressive cohesion made quite an impact all night.
The evening's vocal forces also did noble work. Stutzmann's dark, enveloping tone and keen attention to text made the "Urlicht" movement riveting. Her contributions likewise registered deeply in the finale, which also found Schultz floating silvery phrases.
With its usual technical polish, rich sound and sensitive musicality, the Washington Chorus excelled in that finale, which delivered a genuinely rapturous payoff. Eschenbach pulled all of his forces together for a heaven-storming effort that also, it seemed to me, kept one foot firmly rooted to this earth, where so much of humankind still "lies in deepest need … in deepest pain."