The National Symphony Orchestra is to travel to Europe next week under the baton of Christopher Eschenbach, whose tenure as Musical Director of the Kennedy Center, having begun in 2010, comes to a close at the end of the 2016-17 season. Tonight’s program was a selection of items that they will be playing next month on the other side of the Atlantic.

Christoph Eschenbach © Eric Brissaud
Christoph Eschenbach
© Eric Brissaud
It was an all-Germanic program and one that well matched Eschenbach’s style and the kind of relationship that he has forged with this orchestra. Although he has had his disgruntled critics here during his tenure at the Kennedy, there is no doubt but that he is a compelling man to watch. The distinctive mandarin collar and slightly ill-fitting jacket are but the visual cues of an extremely intense conductor, with a sort of whip-crack animatedness, a kind of rigorously energetic drive that comes out whenever he is in his element, as he was tonight. Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz Overture (1821) was very well-rendered. There was a steely control in the opening, a respect for pause, which was arresting, and a fine restraint in building atmosphere. He chose the moments well for placing a particular tone, for nuancing the volume, for the unleashing of full orchestral energies. The timing of such successive musical moments was precise.

For the purposes of scholarly fascination (and frustration), the best thing one can do as a composer is leave a work unfinished. At various stages in art, there has been a cult of the unfinished, although it is much to be doubted whether Schubert’s Eighth Symphony in B minor is anything more than a reflection of his discontent with the form, his habit of writing fragments, or even, rather more dramatically, the onslaught of syphilis. In any case, the B minor began tonight, dark and growling from a low and murky place and rising to the upper strings with eerie quiet, and then pierced by oboe and clarinet. I particularly liked the command over silence and the dwelling in the lower regions of volume and tone. A musical work’s climax is only as good as its low points, and its base notes must register, soft or sullen or creepy, as the case may be. It is from this foundation that tension must be built, and this was the case tonight. The second movement in E major had some splendidly emphatic passages and ethereal strings. The gradations of sound – the swellings and constrictions – were particularly well-achieved.

Most of us, I dare say, wouldn’t get around to writing a symphony on a spa getaway break. But that is exactly what Beethoven did, whilst taking the waters in Bohemia, and the result is the splendid Symphony No 7 in A major, Op. 92, ‘one of my very best’, as he reflected in later years. One suspects it was therapeutic for him to write: it was certainly a bracing tonic this evening, brandishing away winter dejection with its joyous energies and driven pace. Dubbed the ‘apotheosis of the dance’ by no less a commentator than Wagner, the work is rooted in recurrent rhythmic patterns. The first movement, Poco Sostenuto - Vivace, was boldly drawn where occasion required and sprightly at other times. Eschenbach is a master momentum-builder: he sweeps, he coaxes, he prods, he leans in, and the gradual crescendo at the movement’s end was a well-worked piece of playing. With a hardly a pause between, the second movement, Allegretto, a favourite from its first performance in 1813, with its alluring low-voiced ostinato, and expressive grandeur, did not quite get under one’s skin tonight, as it sometimes does. But the third movement, Scherzo, had a controlled freneticism to it, which was attractively playful. Occasionally, it threatened to exceed its bounds. The fourth movement, Allegro con Brio, was all exuberance, and rendered with panache. An occasional slippage of crisp articulation could not detract essentially from what was a satisfying performance.

****1