Everything the Philadelphia Orchestra touches turns to sound of pure gold

November 04, 1994|By David Donovan | David Donovan,Special to The Sun

The Philadelphia Orchestra returned to Baltimore Tuesday night to receive a thunderous standing ovation and three uproarious curtain calls for conductor Christoph Eschenbach after the triumphant conclusion of the finale of the Mahler Fifth Symphony.

The last appearance here by this fabulous orchestra was on March 14, 1978, and one hopes that it won't take another 16 years to hear this world-class ensemble in the Meyerhoff again.

This orchestra is one of the best in the list of great virtuoso ensembles. The strings are still silky and perfectly unified. The woodwinds are all magnificent soloists, with special honors going to principal oboist Richard Woodhams and bassoonist Bernard Garfield. The lower brass are powerful but perfectly in tune with the total ensemble picture.

The program opened with the infrequently heard "Violin Concerto in D minor" of Robert Schumann. The first movement stormed like Schumann's Faust setting. The second movement had a lovely violin and cello dialogue that foreshadowed the "Brahms Double Concerto," and the finale tried to bring forth Schumann's own "Spring Symphony." Yet, despite some skillful playing by soloist Joshua Bell and marvelous support from Eschenbach, this work did not add up to a satisfying totality. If it were not by the immortal Schumann it would never see the light of day.

The real substance of the evening was a virile, unsentimental realization of the massive "Symphony No. 5" of Gustav Mahler. Mahler said the individual parts of the symphony were so difficult to play that all the players needed to be soloists. The Philadelphia rose to the occasion.

The first two movements were nearly perfectly executed, but the pathos was not in abundant supply. The Scherzo set the Mahleresque character right in a dizzying flamboyant mixture of landler and waltz intermingled with a healthy sampling of contrapuntal mastery. Principal horn Nolan Miller was simply heroic and the lower strings were unrelentingly exciting in the fierce, difficult passage work. In leading this score, Eschenbach let the music speak for itself rather than overstate its romantic nature.

The emotional peak of the evening was the heavenly Adagietto. Outside of the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philadelphia string section may be the best in the business. No section is better than the other, so the tranquil strains pass effortlessly from cellos to violas to violins, with no loss of tonal luster. Again, Eschenbach did not overstate the case and the movement unfolded with introspective wonder.

The Adagietto leads directly into the Rondo-Finale, and the orchestra responded with bravura to the many challenges of this complex final movement. The strings were fearless, and Eschenbach gave this finale a momentum that carried from the folksy wind solos to the great brass chorale melody that Mahler has been hinting about in previous movements. This movement pulls out all the stops, and the Philadelphia Orchestra is one group that actually has all the stops. To hear this music played any better, one would have to travel to Berlin or Amsterdam.

This program had been played before in Philadelphia; Baltimore seems to have benefited from the earlier performances. The Meyerhoff was blessed this evening. One hopes our great orchestral neighbor will return soon.

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