The big story for classical music in Hamburg is the new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, which towers over the town like a giant iceberg. Sadly, the project is long over schedule and the hall’s much delayed opening is now planned for 2016. In the mean time, the NDR Sinfonieorchester must make do with the Laeiszhalle, a cramped 19th-century venue with mediocre acoustics, a small stage and poor sightlines. The orchestra clearly has the measure of the venue though, and plays to its strengths – although the acoustic lacks detail, it has a bright sound which the brass section exploited to impressive effect in Bruckner’s tuttis.

NDR Sinfonieorchester © NDR/Marcus Krüger
NDR Sinfonieorchester
© NDR/Marcus Krüger

Before that we heard Mozart’s 24th Piano Concerto with Christopher Park, a late substitution for Emanuel Ax. Park’s Mozart is strident and confident, his tone muscular and his phrasing controlled, if occasionally a little impatient. This isn’t the kind of Mozart that floats – it’s too percussive for that – but it is still impressively elegant. Despite the generally relaxed pace, both of the outer movements had a strong feeling of momentum, with only minimal tempo changes or rubato, apart, that is, from the first movement cadenza, where Park seemed to bring the music to a dramatic halt before continuing at his own pace. There were also a few occasions in the Larghetto second movement where Park pulled ahead while the orchestra struggled to catch up, as if they were expecting a slower tempo from him.  Generally though, this was an impressive performance, Mozart played on a grand scale and sounding none the worse for it.

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony is evidently a favourite of Eschenbach’s. He performed the work with the London Philharmonic a few years ago, with such success that the orchestra released the recording on their own label. His reading of the work this evening was similar in spirit, with slow but flexible tempos and a real feeling for the music’s epic qualities. In technical terms – ensemble and intonation – this NDR performance was no match for that LPO recording, but they did bring qualities you will only hear from a German orchestra. The lush, velvety string sound was a real asset in the quieter sections, and the distinctive, slightly raspy sound of the rotary trumpets gave character to the climaxes.

Although his tempos are generous, Eschenbach doesn’t hang around. Phrases are carefully shaped, but rarely separated, and, while he is capable of leading very gradual accelerandos into tuttis, he is also just as liable to switch in an instant to a new, faster tempo when the brass arrives. Given the sheer variety of speeds, questions of coherency arise, but Eschenbach is able to maintain the focus and line even through all these changes.

The finale was particularly varied in tempo and mood. Each of the quiet interludes, usually with just the strings, was taken down to a whisper, at least initially, with Eschenbach always seeming to savour the moment. That did require him to make some ungainly gear changes occasionally, an acceptable compromise.

No compromises though in the Adagio. Eschenbach’s tempo here was glacially slow. He was able to rely on the strings, whose occasional intonation problems earlier in the evening were now forgotten as they gave him a huge, round bed of sound. Some excellent woodwind solos, not least from the oboe at the start, and a real sense of interpretive unity throughout the orchestra for the entire movement. A convincing interpretation of the symphony all round, but this movement was the real highlight.