Stop the Press!

What’s that? The Detritus Review actually reviewed a concert?

Well, not quite.


With extraordinary focus, Christoph Eschenbach lead an exceptionally well-played performance of Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, which I found grippingly dramatic. Inside Eschenbach’s brain must have been a golden metronome, because his approach to Mahler’s often complex tempo indications was finely worked-out to great effect.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 89 minute-long performance of the Sixth, the only piece on the program, took one through a panorama of turbulent and emotion-filled scenes.

The orchestra, at the behest of Eschenbach, slowed down and sped up, often unexpectedly, but all with finesse and impeccable control, which somehow heightened the performance’s clarity. Eschenbach is often cited as being a master of rhythmic rigidity, following the score’s indications to the letter. And to his detriment, sometimes, his recordings sound pulse-centric, bringing to mind the often flat, relentless surface of minimalist music. On the flip side, he is often criticized for taking too many liberties, unusual tempo changes in odd places. However, when he fuses and balances both disparate predilections, the music seems more natural, almost like the pulse of a heart, changing its pace according to the ebb and flow of emotions. In this performance, Eschenbach was on, and the Mahler soared.

Last year, Eschenbach visited Disney Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Some said that the orchestra’s balance was not-quite-right. Perhaps this was due to their insistence that they not rehearse in the hall, which has its own special and unique acoustics.

But Saturday’s performance was vastly different; it was superbly well-attuned to the space. Orchestral attacks seemed like well-punctuated stabs. The strings, winds and brass in the pastoral Andante were blended beautifully. The Scherzo’s syncopated rhythms were so crisp that one could easily mistake it for Stavinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” And the militaristic Finale sounded appropriately ominous and threatening, as opposed to the acoustic “mush” often found in other performances.

One may argue that Eschenbach exaggerated the tempos a little too much. But he did it only when Mahler indicated that he wanted a change. And, if you hear the piano roll recordings of the composer, Eschenbach seemed faithful to Mahler’s own swings in tempo.

What made Saturday’s performance special is Eschenbach’s taffy-pulled rhythmic changes. It seemed that each new meter and tempo flowed naturally into one another, sounding very modern. Elliot Carter’s metric modulations work on a similar-sounding principle.

And, of course, the end is always shocking. The Finale fades into a quiet section, with falling brass gestures, harp accents, and an ominous and barely audible timpani rumble. Suddenly, with a series of gigantic, Thor-like hammer strokes, performed by whacking a big wooden box with a heavy mallet, the music takes flight once more toward its glorious ending.


Wow! I might be interested in going to that one. But not this one.

Please leave your comments.


Empiricus said...

And if have read the original:

I particularly like the second to last sentence.

"Eschenbach's ending was surprising to less than most."

Anonymous said...

I was wondering when you guys were going to get to Swed...

I've been reading Swed's reviews since I was an undergrad and have always been amazed at his talent for taking a perfectly logical sentence and reordering it to the very brink of comprehensability.