Christoph Eschenbach’s tenure at the National Symphony Orchestra is drawing to a close, with his term as music director set to end at the close of next season. The German conductor’s time in Washington has produced several significant achievements, but a great Mahler symphony cycle has eluded him. The season’s major opportunity in this area came Thursday night, with Eschenbach’s first performance of Mahler’s gigantic Symphony No. 3, heard in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Mahler’s Third is a behemoth under the best of circumstances, a work of evening-filling length and often intractable proportions. Its six movements teem with ideas, an often unwieldy cornucopia spewing forth philosophic ecstasy, spiritual longing, personal awakening and Dionysian excess. The piece overflowed with so much music that Mahler chose to trim the movement with which he initially planned to conclude the piece, spinning if off into a separate work, which became the Symphony No. 4.
Eschenbach drew out most of the movements, stretching many tempos to the breaking point, belaboring some details, glossing over others, seemingly without a plan to make it all hang together as a unified work. The overall length of the performance, clocking in at just over an hour and 45 minutes, was one of the longest in my experience. The sensation of excessive length during many movements was confirmed by most of the timings, ending up in a reading that felt more bloated than expansive.
The problem was not only one of duration. Movement to movement, it felt as if the work had no pacing, that it was a patchwork of many disparate sections rather than a cohesive whole. The first movement’s “spring awakening” was raucous, full of noisy, even kitschy, contrasts, exaggerating low and awkward sounds — although with powerful and often beautiful solos from principal trombonist Craig Mulcahy. The puckish parts of the second movement prevailed over the graceful nature of the minuet.
Although the third movement ended up at a fairly conventional length, many parts of it felt rushed. A moment of spellbound magic is supposed to occur when a post-horn solo, played off stage, interrupts the squawking motifs of this music, based on Mahler’s folklore-inspired song “Kuckuck hat sich zu Tode gefallen.” The playing of this solo was rough at the top of the range, which did not help, but Eschenbach’s impatience prevented an air of calm from descending over the hall.
Just when the symphony is supposed to lift off, as a mezzo-soprano solemnly chants the words of the “Midnight Song” from Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra,” the performance seemed to get lost in stasis. Anne Sofie von Otter’s voice carried beautifully from the center of the chorister seating above the stage, but Eschenbach’s tempo, oozing like molasses, seemed to drain most of the energy from the moment, dragging out this movement far longer than it is generally heard.
The women of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, arranged on either side of the Children’s Chorus of Washington, gave a pleasant bounce to the brief choral movement that followed. The concluding slow movement, while it had many beauties, felt elongated, never quite achieving a grand statement.
Eschenbach’s interpretation, though, fell right in line with the idiosyncratic — perhaps just downright strange — approach he has shown to Mahler’s works so far. He dispatched two performances of the Symphony No. 5, last May and in 2010, with guns blazing. The Ninth Symphony, last March, seemed almost distorted out of comprehension with all the pulling and stretching of tempos and phrasing, as was the single “Blumine” movement, excised by the composer from his Symphony No. 1, heard in 2013. Only the Symphony No. 4, the genial twin of the Third Symphony performed in 2011, seemed fully coherent.
Downey is a freelance writer. This concert repeats tonight and Saturday.