Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Eschenbach conducts LPO in Brahms and Bruckner RFH 2 November 2011

Brahms, Bruckner: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.11.11 (Gdn)
Brahms: Double Concerto
Bruckner: Symphony No.7

Nicola Benedetti isn't usually associated with the weighty German repertoire, but it suits her style. Her tone, this evening at least, was quite woody and at times nasal too. But it projected well and had all the gravitas that Brahms requires. Her passage work isn't flawless, but those tiny slips and inaccuracies have the effect of humanising the performance rather than detracting from Brahms' plan.
And precision did come into play in the interactions between the two soloists. They are well matched, and Leonard Elschenbroich has a similar woody tone and the same approach to vibrato – expansive in the fortissimos, mostly reserved elsewhere. The skilful interplay of the two soloists demonstrates just how intricate and accomplished Brahms' writing is here. It isn't easy balancing two solo instruments of such differing size and projection (few others have tried). And when you add in the huge orchestra it seems like a recipe for poor balance and stodgy, impenetrable textures. Respect to Brahms then, and respect to Benedetti, Elschenbroich and Eschenbach too, for keeping the work clear and buoyant throughout. It is a dark piece of course, and the sombre tone was duly acknowledged in every aspect of this performance. But the elegance and grace of the playing, particularly from the soloists, prevented it from ever collapsing under its own pretentions.
Given his patchy track record with Mahler, sceptical audience members could be forgiven for fearing the worst from his Bruckner 7 in the second half. I would have been in that camp myself if it hadn't been for his recording of Bruckner's 6th with the LPO that was released last year. That is a truly revelatory recording, and probably the best Bruckner I've every heard from a British orchestra. The 7th this evening was in the same league. With both performances, Eschenbach has shown himself to be a conductor who really understands where Bruckner is coming from. The architecture always comes first, and when a tutti climax, or even just a punch chord from the brass, is structurally significant, he always makes sure it is properly anticipated and presented with appropriate gravity.
Much of this 7th was taken very slowly, especially the first movement. That is a dangerous strategy, as there is always the risk that the long phrases will lose their coherency or that the often fragile tonal relationships will lose their sense of logic. Eschenbach's approach appears to be to walk the tightrope and trust the orchestra to stay with him to keep the whole thing together. It works magnificently, especially as the tempos, slow as they are, are always elastic, Eschenbach always allowing the phrases to breath. The slow tempi have the unexpected advantage of clarifying many of Bruckner's usually obscured contrapuntal textures. He needs the strings to be able to sustain the purity of their sound and to concentrate on the logic of those long phrases, and in every case they do him proud. Elsewhere in the orchestra, the timpanist Simon Carrington was on good form. He's somebody else who has to thing on the broadest possible scale with the long buildups and tempo changes. Excellent trumpets and trombones, who Eschenbach clearly instructed to play outside of their comfort zone at the climaxes. The only disappointment was the Wagner tuba section, who struggled to maintain their balance and tuning. That was a surprise, as London orchestras, including the LPO. usually seem to be able to field an impeccable Wagner tuba section.
It is good to hear that Eschenbach's Bruckner 6 recording with the LPO was not a fluke. He is clearly a Brucknerian to be reckoned with. This is one of a series of Bruckner symphonies that the LPO are performing under different conductors in the coming months. If the rest are up to this standard we are in for a real treat.

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