LPO/Eschenbach Day 2: Folklores, tales

Date: January 6, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

If Day 1 focused on a natural world with hints of the supernatural, then Day 2 gravitates towards the telling of stories and the interpretation of ideas. The LPO/Eschenbach lovefest continues at the NCPA, with Eschenbach conducting a night of program music: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture, Stravinsky’s (1919) Firebird Suite, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini.

In Romeo and Juliet, Eschenbach brings the image of Shakespeare’s feud of the Montagues and Capulets to the NCPA’s concert hall by unleashing undulating strings and roaring brass – the composer’s tools for describing not only the fervent emotions of the two young lovers but the turbulence of the two families. In the coda, the timpani leads the funeral march with haunting authority, and ends the piece with a heart-aching drum roll that seemingly crystallizes the inevitability…of death.

While I am captivated by R&J, my reaction to the Firebird is less enthusiastic. Eschenbach’s problem begins right from the beginning, when the all-important double bass intro sounds muffled and lackluster. The more I listen, the more it sounds like music about a procrastinating duck in a wet summer afternoon than a majestic firebird in a heroic fantasy. Stravinsky’s orchestral brilliance seems suppressed until perhaps the Lullaby, but by then I am lost. The audience remains generous, rewarding Eschenbach with two calls to the podium before intermission.

After the intermission, Eschenbach continues with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, when the Maestro looses his baton in favor of bare hands. The third piece, Little Ugly Girl, captivates the audience with a mischievous melody in a familiar pentatonic scale as well as tamtam splashes that add plenty of velvety richness. But the highlight belongs to an astoundingly beautiful Schiedmayer celesta, whose soft, exquisite timbre adds a foliated sweetness to the motherly warmth of the nourishing strings section.

Anchoring two days of spectacular performance is Francesca da Rimini, where Eschenbach and the musicians seem most musically determined and alert. The moral tragedy of Francesca, immortalized in the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno, is ushered in through the mastery of Eschenbach’s intense direction. Francesca, who was caught flinging with her husband’s brother, is condemned to death together with the brother. The music becomes a canvas for their damnation, in an intense series of music themes that oscillate between retelling joyous embraces of the past and foretelling the inexorable road to perdition. Here, Eschenbach deftly showcases this unique paradigm of romantic music with a boisterous fanfare in one minute, followed by subdued contemplation in the next. Immaculate cymbal work captures the fragmenting reality of yet another pair of doom-bound lovers, and marks the end of two days of excellent music making.

A poster at the NCPA, with Eschenbach getting light-sabered.

Footnote: This is Eschenbach at his best. In my opinion, the Maestro is my favorite interpreter – still alive today – of the late romantic period/impressionist/early 20th century music, next to or even on par with my much beloved but ailing Maestro Sawallisch. Eschenbach’s Francesca is the case in point: the intense ferocity and mellow grace embellishing the embrace and separation of the doomed lovers are tightly interwoven into one coherent fabric of vivid romanticism. I hope Eschenbach will return to Beijing soon.

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