Culture Magazine

Concert Review: The Happy Ending Machine

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Christoph Eschenbach brings the Bamberg Symphony to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: The Happy Ending Machine

The priestly Christoph Eschenbach.
Photo by Margot Ingoldsby Schulman for the National Symphony Orchestra.

Carnegie Hall is one of the busiest venues in New York City, booking hundreds of concerts each calendar year through its in-house organization and also hosting a myriad of other performances who rent out the historic venue to play. One such concert was on Wednesday night, when the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra returned to New York under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach.
More New Yorkers have heard of Mr. Eschenbach, the onetime wunderkind pianist who trained as a conductor under the careful tutelage of Herbert von Karajan than of the Bamberg ensemble. However, although this ensemble from the eastern end of Upper Franconia was born in 1946, it is an orchestra with a proud and rich tradition of music-making just waiting to be heard. Its sound is full, warm and rich, with a balance between strings and brass that comes of long experience and well-trained players who live in the rich musical culture of central Europe.
That was evident from the opening, a slow-fast performance of the Overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni, led with solemn tread in the thunderous opening chords. And then Mr. Eschenbach and his players were off to the races, recounting the Don's hijinks with whip-smart string playing and nimble winds. Mr. Eschenbach chose an unusual edition of this overture to perform, using the "concert ending" (a reprise of the Commendatore's theme and the opera's comic coda) as edited by another great composer: Ferruccio Busoni.
Next up was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with soloist Ray Chen. An appealing artist with a good reputation, Mr. Chen did not disappoint. Indeed, he indulged the audience with impressive but always musical fireworks in the first movement, using the long central cadenza to show his powers of adaptability and improvisation. The finale gathered itself and sprinted to a whiz-bang finish. It was followed by a short and moving Paganini caprice, the No. 21.
Then it was time for the evening's main attraction: a performance of Gustav Mahler's epic five-movement Symphony No. 5. Although its fourth movement Adagietto is the most popular piece that Mahler ever wrote, the Fifth can be a challenging piece for the audience and conductor alike. It is a long ascent from funereal darkness to blazing light, starting with a lone bass trumpet and ending in a riot of color and sound.
Mr. Eschenbach took a relaxed and fluid approach to pacing the tricky first movement, a funeral march with a structure that is closer to a double scherzo than a traditional sonata-allegro. He chose a painfully slow tread for the brass-and-percussion funeral procession, shifting to a more rapid tempo as the strings entered and the great orchestra got around to the business of heavy grieving. The funeral march rhythm shattered at its first entry and lost strength with the appearance and re-appearance of the Viennese dance music in each of the two trios.
The second movement is like the next stage of mourning: rapid emotional shifts and a sense of uncertainty over an expansive arc. Light finally dawned in the Scherzo, which veered between Viennese wit and Czech peasant angst,  with a noble horn solo played by the principal from a standing position. Here, Mr. Eschenbach succeeded in the elusive task of capturing both sides of Mahler's personality. The Adagietto was met with hushed awe and the Rondo-Finale (with its heroic performance from the Bamberg brass) with tumult and well-deserved adulation.

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