Walter Waugaman
Posted on Sat, Mar. 6, 2010

Eschenbach, Schumann: If this is it, it's wonderful
By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
If this weekend is Christoph Eschenbach's once-and-for-all swan song to the Philadelphia Orchestra - he's not scheduled for next season and will be increasingly occupied with his new position at Washington's National Symphony Orchestra - his all-Schumann program is easily among his most fully realized concerts here.
The Thursday Kimmel Center performance initially promised a bit less. Schumann's Symphony No. 4 began well enough, showing the composer through the lens of Wagner: Even the most disparate elements were integrated as well as could be into a continuous flowing and unfolding whole. Everybody was reasonably engaged. The performance felt well-rehearsed but not drilled.
Then the symphony's third-movement conclusion - with its taillike transitional passage, similar to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto - became charged with tension, leading into the kind of go-for-broke performance of the fourth movement that's not unusual in Eschenbach's work with other orchestras. But seldom do such shifts occur so dramatically in mid-performance: The main precedent in my experience was an infirm Herbert von Karajan in his late-1980s swan song to New York when his Bruckner Symphony No. 8 with the Vienna Philharmonic suddenly leaped up a notch during the first movement and went on to now-legendary heights.
Thursday's alchemy only intensified with Schumann's Symphony No. 2, the concert's second half. Though Schumann is core Eschenbach repertoire - he has recorded the symphonies twice - experience with the music doesn't account for the kind of unanimity of purpose, phrase readings so fresh that the music seemed to be happening for the first time, and a sonic glisten that flattered the music but never gratuitously beautified it.
The most convincing Schumann symphony performances are often the ones with an air of impulse and excitability that can translate into entrances that aren't entirely clean and coordination issues among sometimes ill-fitting parts. Safe, tidy Schumann isn't Schumann - a trait revealed by comparisons with Brahms, whose symphonies mesh with themselves almost perfectly. Among the Schumann conductors of the past, sweaty Leonard Bernstein got it; cool, controlled George Szell did not.
The program's primary curiosity was Overture to "The Bride of Messina," which began with strong, passionate ideas but like much later Schumann, fails to sustain them. The piece is still good to hear and fostered fresh appreciation for the composer's superior symphonies.
Posted on 7 Mar 2010, 5:27 AM