National Symphony Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach has long had an affinity for the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, music that embodies timelessness and lofty spirituality. Its technical demands are more about breadth of sound and stamina than precision and terraced clarity. I have often criticized Eschenbach, but one performance that sticks in my mind, many years later, was his luminous Bruckner Sixth; this music truly plays to his strengths.
Last night’s performance of the Fourth Symphony at the Kennedy Center was fine in many ways, though perhaps without the last ounce of inspiration. Eschenbach’s tempi felt very natural, other than the Scherzo, which sounded a little harried at first. It was a festival for the NSO’s refulgent brass section, which could have been confused with even the Chicago Symphony. This came at the familiar price of often-inaudible strings, but since Bruckner’s string figurations are frequently just carpeting or scaffolding, the harm here was less than usual.
Eschenbach could perhaps have shaped the loudest spots a bit more; they tended to plateau without apparent direction. But his shaping of the cello and viola melodies in the Andante was full of yearning, and in the symphony’s softest moments his intensity kept the interest taut.
As was so often the case, Bruckner reworked this piece several times; composed in 1874, it underwent significant revisions in 1878-1880 and again in 1888. What’s maddening about all of this is that the three versions are fully extant, and Bruckner scholars and conductors fight to this day about which one represents the composer’s most authentic vision. The answer, of course, is self-evident; as with everything else, we look, feel and think differently about things at different stages of our lives, and here Bruckner’s journey was reflected in these evolving musical statements. Thus, each is valid in its way. (Eschenbach uses the middle version, with a completely new Scherzo and some trimming of length and orchestration.)
Things were less satisfying in the concert’s first half, when contralto Nathalie Stutzmann sang Gustav Mahler’s “Rückert-Lieder.” Worst of all, the NSO provided no texts, which made enjoyment of the detailed tone-painting impossible. (I’m advised this will be corrected Friday night.) Moreover, the playing was much less solid than in the Bruckner, with many of the principal players sitting out. The intonation between winds and harp was sometimes painful and the brass attacks often not together. This music requires more technically detailed conducting than Eschenbach generally provides, and it was a limp outing all around (the exception being Lewis Lipnick’s wonderful, stentorian contraforte).
Stutzmann, though, was a real pleasure.The bottom of the voice is a bit foggy, but the middle is delicious caramel, and her shaping of the sound through the use and withholding of vibrato is canny and vivid. To her credit, she didn’t let the sour wind chords throw her off but held steady (although this sort of exacerbated the problems). I prefer the tenebrous “Um Mitternacht” with a baritone, but in the final song, where Mahler touches on the bittersweet, end-of-life nostalgia of the Ninth Symphony and “Das Lied,” Stutzmann’s glowing warmth had me holding my breath.
The NSO also took a moment to recognize retiring principal clarinetist Loren Kitt, who graced the position for 46 years with the utmost professionalism and distinction. Audience and orchestra cheered lustily.