Eschenbach leads National Symphony in transcendent account of Bruckner Eighth

Anton Bruckner's epic symphonies, rather like the structures of Stonehenge, continue to loom large and strange and beautiful. These products of a fierce faith do not give up their secrets easily.

No wonder many listeners, in Bruckner's day and since, have walked warily away from what Brahms dismissed as "symphonic boa constrictors." But once you let the music wrap itself tightly around you, once you start to see the carefully laid structures and feel their spirit, it's hard to let go.

If you have not yet had this experience, get to the Kennedy Center to hear the National Symphony Orchestra perform Bruckner's Eighth conducted by Christoph Eschenbach (remaining opportunities are Friday and Saturday).

On Thursday night, the 85 minutes or so of Symphony No. 8 seemed to pass in a flash, even though Eschenbach hardly hurried. He gave the music a gripping immediacy from the very start. Each movement emerged organically, revealing a stirring drama filled with emotional peaks and valleys, all connected by a stream of poetic and spiritual depth.

Eschenbach, conducting from memory, suggested a man viscerally connected to the score, a level of involvement that seemed to touch a nerve in the orchestra.

The eventful Allegro emerged with an electric charge; the conductor deftly drew out the atmospheric passages that foreshadow Mahler (a haunted trumpet line against low strings, the ghostly coda). The Scherzo emerged all taut and vivid; the Trio had a gentle charm.

The NSO's music director invariably lavishes extra care on an Adagio and did so with the enormous one in the Eighth (at almost 30 minutes, longer than many a whole symphony). Eschenbach shaped the themes affectingly and guided the eventual crescendos to truly shattering levels. The tension and urgency carried over into the eventful finale.

Throughout, the orchestra NSO offered unflagging energy and tight focus. The strings produced a sumptuous sound; the woodwinds did colorful work; the brass, including a choir of Wagner tubas, had a particularly mighty night. Adriana Horne made the brief harp contributions speak eloquently. 

Note for note, measure for measure, the performance struck me as a new peak for the NSO. I do not remember ever hearing the orchestra deliver such sustained sonic sumptuousness, along with such clarity of articulation and fervent expressive power.

(I don't hear the NSO week after week, and there were a couple of decades when I didn't live in the area. But I've heard the NSO often enough, going back to the days of Dorati and Rostropovich when I was a cub critic, and I still say Thursday was a peak.)

The all-Bruckner program had an ideal first half -- four elegantly crafted, a capella Motets, sung by the University of Maryland Chamber Singers. Deeper, firmer basses would have been welcome, but the young choristers sang with admirable warmth and detail of phrasing, guided sensitively by Eschenbach.

On Thursday night, the NSO saluted seven departing players, who ranged in service from 28 to 47 years. Among them: Associate concertmaster Elisabeth Adkins (31 years), sister of Madeline Adkins, the BSO's associate concertmaster.

The Bruckner performances are dedicated to the memory of Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, who died this week of cancer. The eminent Spanish conductor's last concert was with the NSO in March, 40 years to the month after his debut with the orchestra, which he served as principal guest conductor 1980-88.

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