Eschenbach, Tetzlaff, Bruckner: The fresh and less familiar faces of the NSO

By Robert Battey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010

Christoph Eschenbach offers a winning program this week with the National Symphony Orchestra, pairing the oft-heard Beethoven Violin Concerto, with soloist Christian Tetzlaff, and the almost-never-heard Bruckner Symphony No. 6 in A. At Thursday's opening performance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Tetzlaff lavished the highest artistry on the concerto, though his musical urgency sometimes shorted the spiritual side of the piece.

Eschenbach set the table masterfully in the first-movement introduction: He limned a wide range of emotional states but always pushed forward. Tetzlaff was ready and waiting, and together the two artists joined forces in an idiosyncratic but fascinating journey.

There was no self-indulgence or dawdling, though. This wasn't a let's-admire-the-scenery trip; the highly detailed expressive and dynamic scheme was enhanced rather than diminished by the steady tread.

The last two movements were slightly less successful; Tetzlaff's tempos seemed glib. The glowing, expressive decorations in the Larghetto came off as trifles, and the passage-work in the Finale simply whizzed by, often inaudibly. Here and there, the bracing speed came at the cost of intonation, as well. This is a major artist, but one who is still maturing.

The Bruckner was an especially canny programming choice for the new music director, helping Eschenbach bond with the NSO and his new audience. He would be literally teaching the work to the musicians -- it was last offered here a quarter-century ago -- as well as beginning to lay out his vision of Bruckner's unique, mystical style. It is a style with which the NSO is barely conversant, having played only four of his symphonies since 1990, and one that takes many years and performances to master.

For the audience, it is also a good entryway into this unusual canon. The Sixth Symphony is Bruckner's shortest and structurally the tautest, and it is the only symphony that the composer was satisfied with from inception. Bruckner will always be a polarizing voice. Many are drawn deeply into his otherworldly, anagogical music, which synthesizes devout Catholicism; a guileless, naturalistic attitude rooted in his rural upbringing; and a rigorous formal training in harmony and counterpoint. The stirring brass chorales and the sense of endless vistas from impossibly high mountaintops can be quite affecting.

Many others yawn at his surface predictability; the incessant (indeed relentless) four-bar phrases, the drab orchestration and the stop-start, highly sectionalized quality -- as though one is walking down a hallway with various doors opening and closing, and different music coming from each. Building a coherent narrative out of such material is possible only for those who believe in every note, which Eschenbach manifestly does.

The NSO players are plainly in thrall to Eschenbach, whose qualities are diametrically opposed to his predecessor, Leonard Slatkin. Slatkin brought every teachable technical skill to the podium, but the underlying musical motivations were either lacking or uncommunicated. Eschenbach is all soul, all feeling. And Bruckner plays to his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses. Eschenbach's personality clearly resonates with the composer's openness and spirituality, and since Bruckner's congealed orchestral palette doesn't place a premium on razor-sharp ensemble, the conductor's rather pedestrian stick technique isn't a liability.

The main drawback was, as it so often is with this orchestra in this hall, the balances. When the brass and timpani cut loose, the strings might just as well put their instruments down. Vast swaths of music simply disappear in the blare. Overall, though, this concert is well worth hearing; two intriguing artists and a newly energized orchestra playing at its peak. The program will be repeated Friday afternoon and Saturday evening.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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