Saturday, April 27, 2013

Wagner & Dvorak at San Francisco Symphony

It's a double-header of Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach this week at Davis; tonight is the last of three programs of Wagner excerpts and the New World Symphony, tomorrow it's Schubert's Winterreise. I attended the symphony concert last night and came away with what you might call mixed feelings:  dissatisfaction with Eschenbach over a few issues, and love for Goerne co-existing with mild frustration.

Let's start with the length of the first half of the program. Okay, the two excerpts are nice bleeding chunks, but man, Die Frist ist um is an odd way to open a concert, creeping on stage as it does. Why not fatten up the program by starting with the overture to The Flying Dutchman? Rehearsal time issues? Um, maybe. I can't think of when I last heard so many messy brass entries as last night, and from a brass section that has been sounding unbelievably great for the last couple of years.

Goerne sang with his characteristic virtues: a gorgeous voice and an unerring line, deep intelligence combined with raw passion. I really could listen to him singing the telephone book; I'm sure he would project each individual's life story effortlessly based only on their name and address.

He could be the greatest Wotan ever, but only under highly controlled circumstances: if he has the stamina,  in a small house with a conductor willing to keep the orchestra's volume under control. In the giant barn that is Davies, he really didn't have a chance. His low notes disappeared - this happened in last year's stunning Mahler / Shostakovich recital as well - and Eschenbach gloried rather too much in the SFS brass, so that Goerne's voice disappeared in the racket at some critical moments. It's pretty impressive to hear an orchestra of this quality cutting loose in Wagner, but you have to wonder how much opera Eschenbach conducts, considering that he did a pretty poor job of supporting the singer.

And you'd also have to wonder how much Wagner he conducts. I do not know Dutchman well, so no comments on the tempos in Die Frist ist um, but jeez, the tempos of the last 2/3 of Wotan's Farewell seemed slow almost to the point of dragginess. Well, presumably they were at least partly Goerne's idea, and they did not cause him trouble. It's not as though the tempo caused any of the balance problems.

Eschenbach's New World performance, lacking a soloist, didn't have the kinds of balance problems the two Wagner excerpts had. I think I have never heard it live, and what a beauty, though a discursive beauty, it is. Still, I left vaguely dissatisfied: the brass issues continued, making the gorgeous chords at the opening of the slow movement less than mysteriously beautiful; some tempos were off (slow movement could've been slower, scherzo could have been quicker and more savage, etc.), and there were a couple of times when you knew, really knew, that Eschenbach is German, not Bohemian. Why the performance got a standing O is beyond me, other than that the loud parts were really, really loud.

UPDATE: Joshua Kosman and I were at the same concert, though he was there Thursday. He's blunter about Eschenbach's failings, too. He reminds me to say: Russ deLuna, you are a marvel. I hope to hear you play the Tristan solo some day.


Joshua Kosman said...

Oh Lisa...I recognize this writeup so well, having written plenty of them myself over the years. It's the work of someone trying to mentally reconcile the reputation of an artist with the poor quality of the performance he's just given. So you squirm and qualify and say "well maybe it's this, and perhaps it could be the other," and then you wind up feeling that maybe you're the problem.

But Occam's Razor, as it so often does, provides a much simpler explanation and it is this: Eschenbach is just a truly crappy conductor. Believe me when I say that his performances always sound like this. He ramps up the volume as though more forte = more profound, and he tugs at tempos and phrasing as if to say "check out what I discovered about thiiiis phraaaaase riiiiight here," and that's all he's got.

In short: It's not you. It's him. Embrace it and move on.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Haha. Well, what I know about Eschenbach's reputation is mostly that he had big problems in Philly. I think I saw him at SFS once before, but I cannot find anything on my blog about it and can't remember what he performed, if I did see him.

I definitely don't think I'm the problem here, except to the extent that I hadn't heard the New World in 20 years, so there were limits to how specific I could be about it, and considering that last night made me want to go home and put on Kubelik.

Michael Strickland said...

Glad you confirmed my suspicions about this concert. I saw Eschenbach conduct the SF Symphony in Schumann (the Fourth) and Zemlinsky (the Lyric Symphony) in 2010 and felt bludgeoned by the end. Let's hope he's a more subtle pianist, because I'm off to Winterreise in an hour with him accompanying Goerne.

Lisa Hirsch said...

And how was the concert? I gave away my ticket, wah.

Michael Strickland said...

Concert was great, legendary, you should punish yourself severely for not going, but I still didn't like Eschenbach.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Believe me, I am suffering the tortures of hell over missing it.