Eschenbach, NSO cap season with searing account of Tchaikovsky's Fifth
While his Violin Concerto was undergoing impulsive, idiosyncratic treatment from Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in season-closing performances with the Baltimore Symphony, the composer's Symphony No. 5 was being given an extremely intense approach from conductor Christoph Eschenbach in his season finale with the National Symphony.
Both interpretations would have distressed listeners used to more mainstream choices of tempo and phrasing. I can't imagine anyone ending up feeling neutral about either -- and that's a good thing, surely.
Eschenbach's version of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Friday night at the Kennedy Center was notable, above all, for the way the conductor ratcheted up its soulful, surging qualities.
Slow parts were extra slow, fast bits extra fast, lyrical passages extra passionate, climactic spots extra forceful. (I was reminded more than once of Rostropovich's approach to this music then he led the NSO way back when.)
There was something very personal about this performance, a sense that ...
Eschenbach was living the music as he shaped it. This came through with particularly compellingly impact in the second movement, as the mood shifted from tender to troubled.
The conductor's elongated phrases heated the tension to an extraordinary degree as the music crested, and he had the orchestra with him every note of the way, pouring out a deep, dark tone. To say it was almost unbearable is in no way a complaint. This was edge-of-your-seat stuff, and it was thrilling.
The waltz movement was taken at a spacious pace, accentuating the slightly bittersweet character. The finale had a telling weightiness even when the pulse quickened. Eschenbach, it seems, agrees with those who feel there is more to this sweeping, major-chord affirmation than meets the ear, a layer of doubt or illusion.
The rapport between conductor and orchestra was impressive to hear throughout the Tchaikovsky. So was the lushness of the strings, the vibrancy of the woodwinds and (a few minor exceptions aside) the clarity and bite of the brass.
Things clicked, too, at the start of the evening in a propulsive, yet always lyrical, charge through Berlioz' "Roman Carnival" Overture.
In between the two repertoire standards came a less often encountered item, Lalo's Cello Concerto, which last appeared on an NSO program more than two decades ago. It's a piece that strives a little too hard to be bold and meaty at times, but with an overriding elegance and flashes of atmospheric color that carry the day.
Claudio Bohorquez, a cellist with Peruvian and Uruguayan roots who will join the NSO on its Latin American tour that starts this week, was the persuasive soloist. His burnished tone and refined phrasing had the music singing nicely, while Eschenbach encouraged supple, colorful support from the ensemble.
Orchestras about to go on tour typically try out their encores on the hometown crowd first, so this concert had one -- a fun dash through the "Thunder and Lightning" Polka by Strauss.
PHOTO (by Christine Schneider) COURTESY OF CLAUDIOBOHORQUEZ.COM