People often ask me if I write parts of my Thursday night reviews of the National Symphony Orchestra ahead of time, since I have to file within 90 minutes of the concert’s end. I never do, but I might have been tempted to this week for the NSO’s performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
There is a story, or several stories, to be told. Christoph Eschenbach and the orchestra are leaving Tuesday to play, for two weeks, a predominantly Central European program in Europe, bringing Brahms and Beethoven to Munich and Vienna and Berlin. Is the NSO really able to compete with the cream of Europe’s orchestras in their best-known repertory? Has it given up on the idea of being American, apart from the token presence of Christopher Rouse’s “Phaethon” on four of the 12 tour programs? Do audiences really want to hear the same works over and over — something supported by the timidity of the current crop of orchestral season announcements but belied by the empty seats in the concert hall Thursday night? And has the NSO become Eschenbach’s orchestra — a question given poignancy by Eschenbach’s sudden lame-duck status since the announcement of Gianandrea Noseda as the orchestra’s next music director?
But the music is most important. And a good part of the story of Thursday’s performance, it turned out, is the way that great pieces remain great and remind you of what made you fall in love with music in the first place. The Schubert, certainly, showed moments of Eschenbach at his best.
Eschenbach brings intensity to the podium. Even when he walks on the lighter side — like the overture to Weber’s “Der Freischütz” that opened the program — I’m often left feeling that we’ve taken a long journey together. For some people, this is an asset. To me, in this overture, it seemed like more effort than necessary: lots of starts and stops, lots of slowing and speeding up, rushing through the quick passages and drawing out the long ones.
But Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony is a journey indeed, and here Eschenbach’s approach — delving deeply into the music, probing and questioning each note, and being swamped, time and again, in waves of emotion — paid off. It took a little while. At the start, Eschenbach made space for some gorgeous horn playing, but then slowed everything down so much around them that the phrase fizzled away and yielded to anticlimax rather than delivering on a promise.
But toward the end of the movement, in the complex, dark, frenzied tangles Schubert wove out of one of the most beautiful melodies in the repertoire, Eschenbach found an ache and anger and savage beauty that seemed at once completely of our time and completely the way the music was supposed to go. Can even the loveliest cello playing of the most gorgeous music, the music seemed to ask, assuage this?
The Beethoven bore Eschenbach’s stamp from the start: the chords at the beginning were explosive, exciting and a little late. It continued with other Eschenbach hallmarks, including his habit of eliding the break between movements (with impressive, turn-on-a-dime shifts from one musical chapter into another) and a general tendency toward an appealing exuberance that can sometimes run into heaviness, or sloppiness. Overall, the appealing part won out, and the orchestra sounded bright and eager and ready. Just because you’re bringing coals to Newcastle doesn’t mean you can’t start your own vivid fire.
The orchestra will perform slightly different programs on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.