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Review: Eschenbach conducts the L.A. Phil at Disney Hall

May 29, 2009 |  1:09 pm

There is a passage in the Adagio movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7  that can be one of the most thrilling experiences you can have in a concert hall.  About three-fourths of the way through, Bruckner patiently builds a long crescendo, the violins grinding out relentless six-note arpeggios and scales under a brass chorale, until the whole thing explodes with a cymbal crash into ecstatic harmonies.       

Eschenbach This would seem to be a sure thing to pull off, but it doesn’t always turn out that way.  Some conductors rush through it, or dawdle listlessly. Others eliminate the cymbal crash altogether on the pedantic grounds that its authenticity is in dispute.

Christoph Eschenbach nailed this passage Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall.  He built the foundation beforehand with tempos as daringly slow as he could manage, the second subject allowed to drift in a mystical way that recalled a wonderful old Furtwängler recording from the 78 RPM days. Then, at the crest, he held back just a little before letting the dam burst.  It was the most powerful treatment I’ve ever heard live – and that includes several performances here under Carlo Maria Giulini.      

Indeed, the whole program – the last of the 2008-09 season –  was a triumph of collaboration between Eschenbach and the Los Angeles Philharmonic that was probably unimaginable decades ago.  The philharmonic is a much better orchestra than it was when Eschenbach was guest-conducting here then, and he has grown and deepened as well. His ill-fated experience in Philadelphia can now be explained as just a bad match between conductor and orchestra; how else can one reconcile his routine 2005 Philadelphia recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony with a tremendous performance of the same piece with the L.A. Philharmonic last year?   

The rest of Eschenbach’s Bruckner Seventh was thought through in complete musical paragraphs and long legato lines underlined with a firm pulse, with many subtle adjustments fully integrated into the overall picture.  Tempos were broad – the symphony clocked in at a sprawling 74 minutes; the usual range is in the 60s – and the orchestra seemed to be channeling weighty textures from the Giulini years.  Yet the time passed quickly.     

Nor was the curtain-raising Mozart Symphony No. 34 treated casually.  The outer movements bristled with life as every phrase was artfully shaped, and Eschenbach’s careful insertions of ritards gave the slow movement an unusually dramatic impact.  

Catch this distinguished team while you can.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Christoph Eschenbach conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Walt Disney Concert
Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. today, 2 p.m Saturday and
Sunday, $42-$147; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

2005 photo of Eshenbach by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times

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