Eschenbach and the NSO play Brahms and Tchaikovsky

Christoph Eschenbach, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, works hard on the podium. No minute goes by without visible effort as he strives to guide and mold and shape the sound, sometimes palming the baton and using hands alone, as if to rid himself of the needless intermediary between himself and the music he wants so much to touch.

Watching Eschenbach at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night — as he led Brahms’s double concerto and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” symphony in the penultimate subscription concert of the 2013-14 season — I remembered his telling me this in an interview before he took over at the NSO in 2010:

He often goes home after performances and listens to a recording of what he’s just done, to hear what he could have done better. Conducting, for him, looks like a struggle, and it sometimes sounds as if he isn’t quite sure how to get an orchestra to do what he wants.

There was a lot of big sound and color and warmth and emotion in Thursday’s two pieces: the kind of music Eschenbach likes best. The two pieces are very different, of course, but exactly how they’re different was blurred in readings that emphasized the size and feeling over the details.

You could argue that the Brahms double concerto is not about size and feeling at all. Big though it is, and long though it is, it can have about it a sense of the austere; it is not the composer’s most beloved piece, nor is it all that often performed. (The NSO last did it in 2007.) There’s a litheness to its muscle. There is Brahms’s signature striving toward classicism beneath its warm Romantic veneer. And there is a quality of diffidence in the way that voices keep interrupting each other, from the very start when the orchestra starts laying out the theme and the soloists break in to say: Here, let us do that for you for a while.

They were certainly competent to take over. Their names are Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich, violinist and cellist, and they have been playing in a trio together for several years in addition to maintaining burgeoning solo careers. And they played this piece with all the Romantic warmth they could muster, as if it were the most beloved piece in the world. Elschenbroich, in particular, came close to making it one in his NSO debut, savoring even the sound of pizzicato plucks in such a way that the ear appreciated the richness of every note. Benedetti, who played with the orchestra at Wolf Trap two years ago, offered smooth and intense sound, slightly uneven, with a dip into near-coarseness in the final movement, but for the most part intertwining seamlessly with Elschenbroich in a duet that the orchestra kept struggling to support.

Brahms doesn’t need feeling. Brahms needs precision. Most music does. The straggling, fragmented chords that the NSO produces for Eschenbach in lieu of a clean entrance, or the foggy brass they gave him in the Tchaikovsky, weren’t furthering the cause that Eschenbach is seeking to promote. What does promote it are dynamic nuances and extremes, an ethereal hush followed by the jittery nerviness in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky, or the skilfull way in which Eschenbach tried to avoid the illusion of conclusion at the end of the third movement by resisting going all out with the climax, leaving a little room for more to come. (The audience applauded anyway, but he had done everything he could to make it clear it wasn’t really over.)

Like many Eschenbach performances, this “Pathetique” was episodic. The impression you can get is of a series of individual entities, soldered together with rapid transitions that still leave the joins visible in what becomes a long line of events. Eschenbach knows where he’s going, but his intensity is such that it can seem a very long journey. Still, I suspect that this is one trip that might improve on subsequent iterations, and by Saturday night it may be a much better performance.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday nights.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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