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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Concert Review: The Philosopher's Stone

Christoph Eschenbach conducts Bruch and Bruckner.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Knowing the score: conductor Christoph Eschenbach.
This week's New York Philharmonic concerts bring together the Romantic violin flourishes of Max Bruch with the staid, cathedral-like sound of Anton Bruckner. At first look, the two composers have nothing in common except for the first four letters of their last names.

It was the task of conductor Christoph Eschenbach to bridge these two very different sound-worlds. He accomplished that by juxtaposing Bruch's Violin Concerto, a stirring, Romantic favorite with the Bruckner Sixth, the shortest and least performed of the Austrian composer's mature symphonies. On Wednesday night, the two works proved to have a potent one-two punch under Mr. Eschenbach, the pianist-turned-conductor who currently heads the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.

For the concerto, the orchestra was joined by Pinchas Zukerman. Mr. Zukerman played the solo part with rich low tones and a supple sound that swelled in volume as it rose in pitch.Mr. Eschenbach kept the concerto flowing smoothly forward from the Introduction to the central Adagio, supporting the soloist with rich color in the brass and woodwinds. The strings formed a lush support for the solo line in this slow movement, allowing Mr. Zukerman room to expand the central theme. The final Allegro dance allowed fresh opportunities for virtuoso flights and rhythmic drive as Mr. Eschenbach led the orchestra in Bruch's kinetic dance.

The Sixth (nicknamed the Philosopher) is the least performed of Bruckner's mature symphonies. And at just 53 minutes, it's one of the shortest. Bruckner finished the symphony in 1881, but the Vienna Philharmonic only played the two middle movements. Despondent, the composer set the Sixth aside and started composing his Seventh. The whole symphony (edited and re-orchestrated by Gustav Mahler) premiered in 1899. For a complete Sixth (without the Mahler additions) the world had to wait until 1901, five years after Bruckner's death.

There is a hidden advantage to this neglect. Since the Sixth escaped the heavy revision process which Bruckner applied to his other symphonies, it is possible to hear this work in a form close to the composer's original intentions. For these concerts, Mr. Eschenbach chose the 1935 Leopold Nowak edition of the score, which places even greater emphasis on the brass section in the work's outer movements.

The result was a bold, muscular performance, conducted without the benefit of a score.The first movement had a relentless momentum, carried by horns, brass and rolling timpani. The Adagio that followed (one of the composer's few slow movements to be written in a pure sonata form) was taken very slowly, almost at a crawl. The result may have tried listeners' patience but resulted in a pure, sculpted movement with noble tone in the cellos and horns.

The Scherzo thrilled. Its violent brass textures pound at the listener, indicating the composer's emotional anguish in the terms of some great army on the march. (This is the movement where one can hear the Mahler connection as the driving rhythm also shows up in the younger composer's own Sixth.) The Trio section was eloquent and expansive before the heavy brass charged once more into the breach to finish the movement. In the massive, expansive finale, the work climbed to a mighty A major climax. One  could clearly hear Bruckner's repeated use of three notes from Tristan und Isolde in what may have been an unplanned tribute to his idol Richard Wagner.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.