Eschenbach leads NSO’s first ‘Lyric’ ode to India

For the Kennedy Center’s “Maximum India” festival, the National Symphony Orchestra offered three programs of music with Indian themes. The third and final one focused Thursday night on Alexander Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony,” settings of seven poems by Rabindranath Tagore. That could be taken as innovative programming.

Christoph Eschenbach was praised last week, particularly, for performing Messiaen’s “Turangalila” Symphony, a monumental 20th-century work. The fact is, though, when you’re thinking about Indian-influenced pieces for Western orchestra, “Turangalila” is perhaps the first thing that comes to a programmer’s mind. And the “Lyric Symphony” might be the second one.

The “Lyric Symphony” is not well known in the United States — Thursday marked its first NSO performance — but it is frequently done in Europe (it’s heard in London and Vienna this spring), and it has been frequently recorded. Eschenbach has been a particular champion of it; he recorded it a few years ago and has played it a number of times, including its first San Francisco Symphony performances last year.

Its presence at this festival is evidence, then, not that the “India” festival is stretching Eschenbach, but that it was a happy way for him to showcase a couple of less-known 20th-century pieces that he was already very much at home with.

What’s unfortunate is that both “Turangalila” and the “Lyric Symphony,” masterful works filled with passion and melody written many decades ago, are still seen as “contemporary” by an audience uncertain about anything that’s unfamiliar. There were blocks of empty seats at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Thursday, and a few people got up and left before the end — this for a work that sits at the Venn-diagram intersection of Mahler (Zemlinsky modeled it on “Das Lied von der Erde”), Strauss, the Schoenberg of “Gurre-Lieder,” and at more than a few moments, George Gershwin.

The “Lyric Symphony” surges with passion and even at its quiet moments is steeped in that dense, sweet, dreamlike music tinged with exotic colors (the wheeze of a harmonium or, at any romantic moment, the languid stroke of a harp’s strings). In short: There’s nothing here to scare anyone. Honest.

Eschenbach, furthermore, has a handle on this piece; it’s a fine fit for his particular strengths, which include a knack for mining works for just the kind of density and passion at which the “Lyric Symphony” excels. It’s not as sharply defined a piece as “Das Lied von der Erde” — its seven sections are more drifting moods than narratives (and its link to Indian music is even more abstract than the vague Chinoiserie of “Das Lied,” which sets five poems from China). And its two soloists, baritone and soprano, are linked in a vague romantic arc, coming together and then parting, but the thick swell of the music rises up to drown their voices.

Indeed, the only real quibble with Thursday night’s performance had to do with the balances. Over the powerful orchestra, it was hard to hear even the powerful Matthias Goerne — the star German baritone who’s another of the frequent Eschenbach collaborators to grace the maestro’s maiden season with the orchestra — and Twyla Robinson, who has a light lyrical soprano, was often eclipsed altogether.

But the composer shares the blame for that — for writing densely for the orchestra, and in difficult parts of the singers’ ranges. And the singers were to blame, as well. Goerne, who has a beautiful rich voice, made the mistake of pushing his sound constantly, meaning he worked hard to make a smaller and barkier sound than he might have produced with less pressure. Robinson does not appear to be a very interesting singer; she made lots of pretty noises that ultimately seemed anodyne. Rather than a woman deeply in love, we heard simply a soprano, singing notes.

Even to those not interested in Zemlinsky, you might think that Eschenbach himself would be a draw. The other piece on the program was a Mozart piano concerto (No. 23, K. 488) which the maestro, an acclaimed pianist before his full-time move into conducting, led from the keyboard. This was initially less successful: The orchestra played with neither the clean crispness of a historically informed interpretation nor the fullness of a more romantic one, but at some muddy midpoint, and there were some weaknesses in the winds.

Hearing Eschenbach play piano, however, was enlightening. Even not quite at the top of his form (a bout of tendinitis last year necessitated a break from the instrument, and there were some missed notes and even a moment of near-improvisation), he is a fine pianist. And his approaches to tempo and dynamic in, for instance, the first movement cadenza, contextualized similar decisions he has made as a conductor: his freedom, his love of near-spontaneous exploration.

At the end of the piece, he returned and led the orchestra in an encore — the second movement of the Mozart piano concerto No. 12, K. 414. Here, soloist and orchestra found their groove, sustaining long, soft passages with the care of someone balancing a soap bubble on the back of his hand. It was even better than the concerto that preceded it.

The orchestra refused to take a bow, applauding Eschenbach instead, and the audience rose to its feet. With such an evident love affair going on between the conductor and his players and public, it’s a mystery that the NSO can’t manage to fill the hall to hear him do what he does best.

The concert repeats Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

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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