Walter Waugaman
Posted on Fri, Nov. 20, 2009

Eschenbach goes deep into Mahler's Seventh

By David Patrick Stearns

Inquirer Classical Music Critic

Christoph Eschenbach saved the strangest for last in his complete Mahler symphony cycle with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
After the folksy tunes and nature description of Mahler's first four symphonies, the orchestral apocalypses of the fifth and sixth, the dizzy-making gargantuanism of the eighth, and elegiac lyricism of the ninth and 10th, the nocturnal but discomfiting Symphony No. 7 arrived on Wednesday under ex-music director Eschenbach.
The symphony perversely withholds melody in much of its 90-minute duration, passing through vague dreamscapes of Viennese waltzes and plaintive children's songs, seeming to arrive at the doors of heaven but never crossing the threshold. In the end, Mahler's craziest-ever finale goes into the Charles Ives Zone, the music stuffed with seemingly everything he could think of, and in interruptive, truncated ways. Leonard Bernstein heard it as a portrait of 19th-century culture crumbling before our ears. As usual with Eschenbach, the matter was not so simple.
Typically, Eschenbach clearly gives his position at any given turn in Mahler symphonies, but on Wednesday some of the pieces hadn't yet locked into place. Though warmly received by the audience, the orchestra's playing lacked its usual confidence, the first movement starting with uncertainty and taking time to find its legs. The tempos seemed somewhat undifferentiated; in fact, there was actually plenty of variety that wasn't obvious because the chosen speeds projected only middling degrees of emotional underpinning.
Occasionally, lethargy was apparent, but so was a solid interpretive framework. Rather than unfolding it with a predominantly linear sense of counterpoint, Mahler built the symphony in recurring heterogeneous blocks that Eschenbach treated as organic entities. When returned to, these entities had markedly different tempo and character, as if having morphed while absent. Such touches contributed to the overall musical narrative - crucial in a symphony whose five movements can seem like separate tone poems. In this performance, everything had its rightful place, even the brief mandolin and guitar solos that can be tricky to balance.
But more details, please. Ones that were heard had no-easy-way-out ambiguity (good!). In the opening moments, the solo from the tenor horn with its hard-to-place hybrid sound was even more subtly intriguing - played not in the typically confrontational fashion but with touches of vibrato suggesting a siren call. Though the finale is often heard as a break from the four previous movements, Eschenbach went for an unorthodox summation. Rather than making it a mad rampage through many musical worlds, he went deeper into its pockets of music in ways that overrode the ironic, sarcastic surfaces. Masks, real or implied, were removed.
In some ways, this concert is an instance of how Philadelphia only periodically heard Eschenbach in full throttle - for a zillion reasons, and for no reason that may ever be truly understood, just as the genius of Maria Callas never fully bloomed at the Metropolitan Opera, and ebullient Dmitri Mitropoulos never won over the New York Philharmonic. It happens to the very best.
Posted on 22 Nov 2009, 3:53 AM