Christoph Eschenbach was one of the best Mozart pianists of the second half of the twentieth century. The discography will attest to it. For many years, Eschenbach has been mainly a conductor, and that was his role with the New York Philharmonic on Tuesday night.
He and the orchestra began with a Mozart piano concerto—No. 22 in E flat, K. 482. How does he feel on the podium, when some other pianist is playing “his” music? For that matter, how does the pianist feel? I would like to ask them. In any case, the soloist on Tuesday night was Till Fellner, the Austrian pianist.
What is it about Mozart and E flat, by the way? He reaches for that key, I think, to express a warm nobility.
Eschenbach began with the tempo giusto, just the right tempo. And he had that coiled quality he always brings to his conducting—in good performances and bad. There is a tension, a wound intensity, a coiledness, that he brings. This performance was never sleepy, that’s for sure.
Eschenbach was correct—tasteful—but bold. He did not run roughshod over the music, but neither did he handle it with sugar tongs. The Philharmonic’s strings played with a warm and meaty sound. The horns kept their footing, thankfully.
As for Fellner, he was earnest in this first movement. Knowledgeable, experienced, and civilized. A little tight, maybe, but admirable. Eschenbach refused to let the final note of the movement linger, which was a bonus. A late music director of the New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, was particularly good at this.
In the middle movement, Andante, Fellner was beautifully matter-of-fact. You have heard this music stormier and more emotional. But Fellner was willing to let the music speak for itself, and I liked his slight coolness. It may even have enhanced the emotion.
As for the Rondo, it was covered in Gemütlichkeit. Some of the credit goes to the principal flute, Robert Langevin. Fellner used a fabulous cadenza by Hummel, which begins with an upward sweep: vroom!
How refreshing, by the way, to spend a half-hour in Mozart’s company.
On the second half of the program was a single work: the Ninth Symphony of Bruckner, which you can consider his Abschied (farewell). There was plenty wrong with this performance. Like what? Like roughness. Some bluntness. In the first movement, I would have liked more of a smile. Also, there was not a lot of variation in dynamics. Much of the playing was loud. The Adagio was not spellbinding or transporting, as it can be. The final onset was unfortunate, and the closing pizzicatos were poor.
Did this performance have anything? Yes, a very great thing: heart. There was a lot of heart behind the conducting and behind the playing. Eschenbach has had a lot of experience—not just with music but with life. I felt that his experience played a part in his reading of the Ninth. This was a very human Ninth. It had turbulence, disquiet, anger. Some readings of this symphony are divinely stately. Seamless. Holy. This Ninth was human—unabashedly so, warts and all—and I loved it.