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The Philadelphia Sound: Still Superb

May 29, 2007

Sometimes it's better not to know too much of what goes on behind the scenes in the making of a performance. History is replete with examples of acrimonious, not to say borderline murderous, artistic partnerships resulting in splendid performances (and, for that matter, of unfailingly genial partnerships that never managed to spark). The unsettled relations between the Philadelphia Orchestra and its music director, Christoph Eschenbach, have been common talk in musical circles for some time now, and it's perhaps inevitable that I found myself half-consciously listening for evidence of discord at its Saturday night concert.
In the event, the program (the second of two at Davies Symphony Hall) presented an orchestra and conductor who seemed to me to be in perfect rapport, tackling an enterprising program with enviable virtuosity and sensitivity. If this is what Eschenbach (whose tenure as music director is drawing to a close) is in the habit of producing with this orchestra, Philly's audiences have had it good of late, whatever the level of morale onstage.

The program's least-familiar offering was a handful of Schubert songs in posthumous orchestrations, sung by baritone Matthias Goerne. The songs ranged from naively charming to dark and terrifying, and the orchestrations — by a number of hands — were variably successful. Almost the best was the least ambitious: an anonymous version of "An Silvia" (To Sylvia) that allotted the left hand's bass line to solo bassoon, the right hand's wistful echoes of the voice to solo oboe, and the remaining notes to the strings. The result was delightful, pointing up the vocal line without getting in its way.

At the other end of the expressive spectrum were two great and grim songs that seem to cry out for orchestration: "Erlkönig" (The erl-king) and "Gruppe aus dem Tartarus" (Group from Tartarus). The latter must have been a honey of an assignment for Brahms, whose orchestration, heavy on the trombones and bassoons, growled and spat furiously from the depths of hell. Max Reger was responsible for the "Erlkönig," equally vivid if perhaps a little less effective due to his insistence on octave-doubling the voice almost throughout.

Indeed, several of the orchestrations shadowed the voice constantly. Often, of course, so did Schubert's piano parts. But there is a difference between a line on a keyboard instrument and the same line transferred to, say, a first violin section, where it is bound to be more obtrusive and also (in the nature of things) more continuously legato. "Tränenregen" (Rain of tears), from Die schöne Müllerin, orchestrated by Anton Webern, suffered in particular from this device, which got more wearisome strophe by strophe. This and the other Webern orchestration (of "Der Wegweiser" [The signpost] from Die Winterreise) date from early in his career and seem to have been made for practical purposes rather than analytical ones. Anyone anticipating something in the vein of his famous aural deconstruction of the six-part ricercar from Bach's Musical Offering would have been disappointed.
Sweet-toned Baritone in Gripping Performance
Goerne was in superb voice, clear and firm and sweet-toned. "An Silvia" was utterly charming. "Memnon" (Brahms again) and "Im Abendrot" (At dusk; Reger again) were beautifully shaped and sustained. "Erlkönig" got a harrowing performance in which Reger's orchestration did its seeming best to overwhelm the singer but did not succeed. Brahms' brass and timpani in "Gruppe aus dem Tartarus," alas, did in places — Goerne doesn't have quite the heft in the bottom of his register to compete — but that performance, too, was gripping in its intensity.

"Tränenregen" got lovely singing, but bogged a bit at Goerne's slow tempo; "Der Wegweiser" was daringly slow, too, but here to mesmerizing effect. The encore was "Ständchen" (Serenade) from Schwanengesang. It was irresistibly seductive.

The Schubert group, even given the presence of a few of the composer's bleakest songs, functioned in the program almost as a point of relaxation, coming as it did just after Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony. The Schoenberg is one great tense, sinewy beast, a sprawling, late-Romantic symphony compressed by force into the space of 15 instruments and 20-some minutes and then brought to a boil. Everything in it is obsessively related to everything else, and the teasing-out of connections goes on in a texture that seethes and churns with motivic energy. It can, and usually does, sound like an unholy mess.

On Saturday night, though, the Philadelphia players and Eschenbach kept a steely grip on the writhing counterpoint and achieved impressive results. The piece gains much from determinedly good intonation, for one thing; nearly everything is octave-doubled within the texture, and when the doublings are genuinely in tune, as they were here, the counterpoint snaps into focus. And the string players seemed unfazed by even the most athletic of Schoenberg's wide-flung lines. Principal Cellist Hai-Ye Ni's account of the wicked passage leading off the main body of the piece set a standard that was gratifyingly maintained throughout.

It was not a performance free of strain (an alarming thought), yet the strain was innate to the piece, not evidence of a failure to measure up to it. In the closing bars, the edge of hysteria that set in may have represented 15 people playing at their outside limits, but it was also exactly right. The shrill final cadence stuffed the teeming music back into its allotted space like a hand slamming the lid on a coiled Jack-in-the-box.
Blazing Finale
Alongside the Schoenberg, Brahms' First Symphony seemed genial — no less minutely designed, but on a more leisurely and (despite its grandeur) human scale. Eschenbach's way with the piece is spacious rather than driven. It did not lack dramatic direction, but everything took its time just a little, in a way that mitigated the grim intensity of much of the outer movements. The inner movements, meanwhile, brought out the subtle colors of this band. The third was especially lovely, played a bit faster than usual and with an ear to the delicate interactions of strings and winds midtexture.Elsewhere individual winds shone, and other delights were mellow flute and oboe solos, a burnished first horn, exquisite trombones, and an unusually forward contrabassoon. The strings sounded velvety in piano, massive and gritty at full strength, and the whole band blazed magnificently at the close of the finale. An encore was inevitable: Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5, in a brisk and casually virtuosic performance that rounded off a bracing evening.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.