When Christoph Eschenbach began his tenure with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2010, he arrived with a recording contract with the Finnish recording label Ondine. He has recorded only one disc with the NSO to date, in 2011 — the orchestra’s first recording since 2001 — which inauspiciously paired some slightly sloppy Gershwin and Bernstein with the premiere of the instantly forgettable “Remembering JFK” by Peter Lieberson.
Eschenbach may not have released any more recordings with the NSO since then, but he has done so with two of his former bands: the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival Orchestra and the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg. With the latter orchestra, he made two Hindemith discs, both recorded live around the 50th anniversary of Hindemith’s death in 2013, slightly after which the NSO programmed the composer’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The first of these Hindemith discs won Eschenbach a Grammy last year; the second, devoted to two of the composer’s symphonies, just came out this fall.
Hindemith’s symphony on themes drawn from his opera “Mathis der Maler” is likely his most heard and recorded orchestral work. The opera, about the artistic struggles of the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald during the German Peasants’ War, was of great personal importance to Hindemith. Scholar Siglind Bruhn, in her book “The Temptation of Paul Hindemith,” saw “Mathis” as Hindemith’s “spiritual testimony,” finding in it references to the composer’s contemplation — and ultimate rejection — of a place for himself in the Nazi cultural world. The symphony is based on three sections of the opera, and he gave each movement a title in reference to a panel in Grünewald’s masterpiece, the “Isenheim Altarpiece.”
Eschenbach’s active interpretation of this score, perhaps too focused on a succession of details but supported especially by strong brass playing, is not likely to get far in an already crowded field of competition, including a recording led by the composer himself. The value of this disc lies more in the companion piece, the worthy but little-heard Symphony in E-Flat, composed in 1940, during Hindemith’s first months living in the United States. The woodwinds are a little jumbled in the first movement, but the strings are luscious in the second, a funeral march. The longest movement in the symphony, it has a gloriously triumphant ending, making this movement a highlight of the recording, followed by a high-octane scherzo that bubbles over into the finale.
Raphaël Pichon, cond. Erato
The French soprano Sabine Devieilhe has joined forces with the period instrument ensemble Pygmalion and its founding conductor, Raphaël Pichon, to produce one of the most engaging and entertaining CDs out recently. Devieilhe is that rarity, a genuine coloratura soprano, with a voice that skyrockets up into the stratosphere and, once there, moves around with the agility and ease of a Flying Wallenda. Her keen musical intelligence comes bolstered by professional training as a cellist and musicologist. Pichon is something of a rarity too, a singer turned (good) conductor. Throw into the mix Pygmalion, an ensemble of 40 expert instrumentalists who play as one, and you have critical mass.
The program is built around the Webers, a poor but musical family with three singer daughters, Josepha, Aloysia and Constanze, that the 21-year-old Mozart met in Mannheim. Mozart promptly fell in love with Aloysia and, when that didn’t work out, eventually married Constanze. Meanwhile, he composed beautiful music for all three.
Instead of a stuffy lineup of Mozart’s “greatest concert arias,” this program is full of risk-taking and playfulness. Devieilhe opens with what seems to be a sort of relaxed vocal improv on one of Mozart’s piano pieces, the Variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and ends with one of the naughty so-called scatological canons, “Lech mich am Arsch.” In between is a sampling of Mozart’s most concentrated vocal writing, punctuated with dazzling vocal fireworks. Beautiful realizations of largely unfamiliar instrumentals are interspersed as an added bonus.
As thrilling as it is to hear the ease with which Devieilhe takes the high Gs in “Popoli di Tessaglia,” the sinuous intertwining of her duet with oboe in “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!” is meltingly beautiful. Mozart created the role of the Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute” for Josepha. Devieilhe’s unhinged fury in the queen’s second aria, “Der Hölle Rache,” condemning her daughter to hell if she fails to commit murder, is hair-raising. I don’t know of another performance, including Diana Damrau’s, quite so powerful. Striking contrast is provided by the Olympian serenity that pervades this reading of the “Et incarnatus est” from the C minor Mass, written for Constanze.
Combining a fresh biographical concept, unusual talent, imaginative programming and top-flight music making, this is a release no Mozart lover will want to miss.