NSO review: Fresh off his Grammy, Eschenbach commands a worthy night

On Sunday, Christoph Eschenbach was announced as a Grammy Award winner for a recording of Hindemith. On Monday, he accompanied Matthias Goerne in a drop-dead performance of Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin.” And on Thursday, he brought both Hindemith and Goerne to the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, along with the National Symphony Orchestra.

The Goerne part was, of course, planned; the Hindemith Grammy (for a recording with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra) was extra credit. And the result, if not earth-shattering, was certainly worth hearing.

The piece he led was “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d: A Requiem ‘for those we love.’ ” The NSO had never done the piece before, though D.C. has heard it a few times over the years — one of the most recent occasions being in 2009, when the Cathedral Choral Society did it as part of a program honoring Abraham Lincoln. The work was written to mark the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it sets a lengthy Walt Whitman poem about the death of Lincoln: a conjunction of commemoration, reflected in the juxtaposition of two styles — Whitman’s more flowery, Hindemith’s more austere.

If the work were more modest in its forces, it would be more often performed. Its musical language is expressive, elegiac, evocative and more straightforward, often, than Whitman’s words, which pass with the speed of a scrolling text banner on the side of a building — snatches moving by sometimes faster than you can fully apprehend them. However, it calls for a full chorus (the Choral Arts Society did the honors), two vocal soloists (Goerne and the mezzo Michelle DeYoung) and orchestra, and it lasts for an hour (though the NSO performance didn’t feel that long). Those facts combine to make performances fairly scarce.

Text-heavy and sometimes intricate in its vocal writing, the piece is a tour de force for the chorus, and the Choral Arts Society for the most part did it proud, managing precise a capella echoes of Goerne’s solo line at the end of the fourth section (“O western orb sailing the heavens”), and achieving poignant clarity in the “Death Carol” that is the work’s long, emotional climax.

It also has a big part for the baritone, and Goerne was an illuminating soloist. Hearing him with orchestra in a big auditorium was an interesting contrast to Monday’s more intimate piano recital; in this space, he sounded big but not huge, and his acting ability also had free rein. His presence represented near-perfect casting: The piece requires a singer who can convey the nuances of poetry over an orchestra and get through reams of text without paling. DeYoung, for her part, made a big, sweet sound that was slightly generic in contrast; where Goerne inhabited his text, DeYoung “opera-singered” it, slightly calculatedly.

Cleaner direction than Eschenbach’s would greatly benefit a work that relies on crispness and transparency of textures to make its point. There were, both here and in the Mendelssohn, a number of imprecise entrances and some general muddiness that didn’t help make the case for its bittersweet harmonies and bittersweet mood. Clean, grieving restraint is the sound of this music, and restraint is not Eschenbach’s stock in trade. Though on the other hand, he has a good feeling for this work’s emotional directness.

I recently dismissed the standard works on an NSO program with the words “business as usual,” and was challenged by at least one listener who observed that one of the things he has loved about going to orchestra concerts was a chance to hear the standard repertoire live. I love that, too, if the performance gives me any reason to love it.

The NSO has certainly given me ample opportunity to love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, which they seem to play nearly every year. If I were feeling cynical, I’d suspect its presence on this program was an indication that they didn’t think that the Hindemith was likely to sell tickets, so they offered the bonbon of a popular work with no less a soloist than Josh Bell to pull people in — though having both Bell and Goerne on the same program is luxury casting, indeed.

There was, however, little in this performance that added to my prior history with this concerto. The orchestra sounded rather jolly and robust. And Bell — as has so often been the case in my experience — made lovely sounds but played sloppily, with cute, little ornamental fillips offsetting smeared runs and intonation that always seemed to approach the note slightly from below and not always to get all the way up to the center of the pitch.

The audience, however, did not appear to share my reservations, and leapt to its feet when the soloist was done.

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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