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Knowing When to Stop

Jones Hall
12/06/2011 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5
Houston Symphony, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

C. Eschenbach (© Eric Brissaud)

Christoph Eschenbach's last venture to Jones Hall, with his Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra, was a performance containing the most egregious of this always intriguing conductor's idiosyncrasies. Back again with the hometown orchestra, of which he was the charismatic, popular and developmentally catalytic leader for most of the 1990s, he was bravoed before conducting a beat. The stage was jam-packed with all the wonderful noisemakers that are hallmarks of a Mahler symphony, and the electricity of anticipation could almost be seen in the air. Nothing stood between Eschenbach and his armada of instrumentalists as he led the audience into Mahler's ingenious, densely contrapuntal fifth essay in the symphonic genre.

Mahler split his five-movement symphony into three divisions, and the success of the reading on tonight's concert aligned with those partitions. The first Abteilung, comprised of the first two movements, was idiosyncratic in Eschenbach's normal vein, but convincingly so. The third movement stands alone as the second Abteilung, and here the pushing and pulling of tempos and garish exaggerations nearly became catastrophic. As if retreating from the edge of an abyss, then, the third Abteilung, containing the justly famous Adagietto and the jaunty Rondo-Finale, found Eschenbach adopting a more straight-forward interpretive stance, which left one satisfied if not overwhelmed.

The work is laden with passages that orchestra geeks yearn to hear. Chief among these is the opening trumpet fanfare, perhaps the instrument's most famous solo, which was given confidence and brilliant tone, brave and steady. This set the tone for the entirety of the first movement. Mahler's direction that the movement proceed "In gemessenem Schritt" ("In measured steps") is not always observed, but Eschenbach was faithful. While his measured tempo and hesitating rubato seemed idiosyncratic, it's simply because most conductors aren't brave enough to make this funeral march lurching and harrowing, instead adopting a more straight-forward approach. The flexibility of Eschenbach's tempos was expertly followed by his orchestra, and the entire band was on top of its game during the movement. The heavy brass were particularly impressive, but so too were the melancholic, full-toned strings in their long melodic arches.

The stormy, vehement second movement saw Eschenbach pushing to extremes, with thrilling results. The latent venom of the first movement was suddenly flung about with abandon. There was no shying away from nasty sounds or attempts to smooth over rough edges. The movement was a shocked reaction to the preceding funeral march, and the sudden shifts in gear were negotiated on a dime from all corners. The playing was near-perfect and, even when there was a slip (as happened near the, end when the horns entered a full measure early), adjustments were made, and the overall impression was spot on.

The gigantic scherzo that forms the centerpiece of the symphony unfortunately found Eschenbach's interpretative choices starting to interfere with the overall architecture of the work. Some uncharacteristically slipshod horn playing exacerbated the problems, though this thankfully improved as the movement progressed. The gestures from the podium grew even more extreme during this movement, as if it was an attempt to outdo the mannerisms of the second. But Mahler here gives the indications "strong" and "not too fast," and these simply weren't the impressions received from this run-through. Fatigue in the winds was audible, and it seemed that all involved were simply rushing to the respite of the Adagietto. This isn't to imply that there weren't fantastic moments, but the role of this scherzo as a turning point from grief to joy didn't come across. Instead, it felt hectic and unhinged.

Fortunately, clarity seemed to return to the gaze of the orchestra for the final Abteilung. In the Adagietto, the strings and harp played miraculously, with full tone and coordination at a measured tempo. One often forgets how difficult it is to play with precise rhythm at a slow tempo, especially with Mahler's layered rhythms. This challenge was strongly overcome, and the unfolding of the movement was a continuous, unbreakable flow.

This was followed by a smartly controlled reading of the finale. The contrapuntal webs that Mahler spins demand clarity and precision, and this is what we were given. The accumulations of energy, thwarted from their true climactic arrival until the glorious return of the second movement's chorale, were thrillingly caught. We were pulled higher and higher towards the apex. If the brass sounded slightly fatigued in the scherzo, their rest during the Adagietto refreshed them, and the D major peroration was literally hair-raising. The scurrying whole-tone 'wink' that Mahler finishes the piece with was tossed off with breathtaking virtuosity. All truly is well that ends well.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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