Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 67: Philadelphia Orchestra – Christoph Eschenbach @ Royal Albert Hall, London

4 September 2006

Against the odds, notably baggage restrictions and an unexpected fire inthe artists’ bar, Christoph Eschenbach led the PhiladelphiaOrchestra in the second of their scheduled Proms, a titanic pairing ofultimately triumphant fifth symphonies.

Both received wonderfully polished performances, the Philadelphia soundone of beautiful string unison, purely refined woodwind and luminousbrass.

While this undoubtedly had its advantages in maintaining claritythroughout the Beethoven, it prevented the symphony from communicating on abroader emotional scale – the rough edges only occasionally glimpsed.

Thiswas the only issue however, as the interpretation had plenty of vigour andwas wonderfully executed. Eschenbach secured a truly magical transformationfrom scherzo to finale – you couldn’t hear a programme rustle – and partsof the Andante shone with a radiant beauty, despite the occasionaldeviation of tempo.

Ensemble was crisp, helped by incisive timpani and the pinpoint accuracyof basses and cellos, and pianissimo effects were sharply observed. The endfelt sufficiently hard won, the leader David Kim an inspiration tothe violinists, exerting enough to puff out his cheeks at the end.

Tchaikovsky’s fifth, similarly concerning itself with fate and itseventual overcoming, received a top drawer performance. The balefulclarinet of Ricardo Morales suited the darkly coloured firstmovement perfectly, and Eschenbach, keeping an iron grip on the tempo, sawto it that the themes were integrated tightly, the string sound beautifulonce again. Here he allowed the brass a rougher texture, so giving the workmore of a Russian hue, used to great effect as the music died away.

The velvet tones of violas and cellos were perfectly attuned to the slowmovement, placed in front of the conductor with the violins either side.This was the symphony’s emotional heart, its shattering climax followed bysilence in an unexpectedly Brucknerian parallel. The finale was a trueaffirmation in these hands, violins singing forth in the major key to thecrammed arena, and the flourish of the final chords capped the transitionfrom darkness to light.

Eschenbach modestly received the tumultuous applause before showing theorchestra’s lighter side in an encore of Smetana’s Dance of theComedians, pulling around with the tempo as a crowd pleaser. Thejourney had indeed been won, the flames – both musical and otherwise -extinguished.

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