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Christoph Eschenbach’s Swan Song

Verizon Hall of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
05/18/2008 -  
Antonin Dvorak: Piano Quintet in A major
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano and Wind Quintet in E-flat Major
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9
Robert Schumann: Frauenliebe und –leben – Kinderszenen

Christoph Eschenbach (piano), Rinat Shaham (mezzo-soprano) & members of the Philadelphia Orchestra

Christoph Eschenbach made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra as a piano soloist in 1983. Six years later, he conducted the orchestra for the first time. Since he became the orchestra’s music director in 2003, Eschenbach has proved a better pianist than conductor. Saturday evening, Eschenbach ended his troubled tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra with a disappointing program that combined Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony with the Symphony No. 9 (“Great”). Eschenbach can regret that his Philadelphia career is unfinished, but few would agree that his slipshod conducting of the Schubert symphonies could be called “great.” Sunday afternoon, Eschenbach redeemed himself as piano soloist, chamber musician and accompanist in a program in the Kimmel Center’s Master Musician series billed as “Christoph Eschenbach & Friends.”

The lengthy program opened with Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A major and Beethoven's Piano and Wind Quintet in E-flat major. The two chamber scores featured Eschenbach at the piano with a contingent of the orchestra's principal musicians. On the podium, Eschenbach too often leads affected interpretations. At the piano keyboard, however, his playing is natural and unaffected. He held together both the Dvorak and the Beethoven with the quiet and unassuming authority of his interpretations.

Dvorak’s Piano Quintet was notable not merely for Eschenbach's limpid piano playing but also for concertmaster David Kim's refined violin, Choon-Jin Chang's mellow viola and Efe Baltacigil's warm-toned cello. Second violinist Paul Roby added another distinctive voice to the musical dialogue. Eschenbach also made a notable impression in the Beethoven Piano and Wind Quintet which featured Richard Woodhams (oboe), Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon) and Jennifer Montone (horn). Luxury casting, indeed!

After intermission, Eschenbach picked up his baton to lead an urgently shaped performance of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1. The orchestra musicians played this challenging score with fervent virtuosity. Two scores by Robert Schumann rounded out the program. Mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham - late replacement for mezzo Susan Graham - joined Eschenbach for a touching performance of Frauenliebe und –Leben. Shaham's assertive interpretive style and affecting voice left a distinctive imprint on the song cycle. Despite her constant arm and hand gestures, she crafted a lovely, nuanced account of the song cycle. Eschenbach supported the singer with a finely judged accompaniment.

The program culminated in a sublime account of Schumann's Kinderszenen. Eschenbach seemed to be conjuring Schumann's notes from his piano, so magical was his playing. Träumerei emerged as a magical reverie. The audience rewarded Eschenbach with a stirring ovation.

Robert Baxter



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