Monday, 28 February 2011

Eschenbach Mahler 9 LPO / database hoarding

Christoph Eschenbach can always be relied upon to find something original to hear in Mahler, so his Mahler 9th Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday was eagerly awaited. My tickets were bought a year in advance. Gosh, was I looking forward to this!

But I was underwhelmed. Obviously the fault is not Eschenbach, who has conducted this symphony many times before and knows what he's doing. Since I never do things the easy way, I won't just write negative, but for a change, think about why and how we respond to what we hear.

Obviously fatigue was a factor for me, with so much going on in the last few weeks (three conferences, more than a dozen concerts, most heavy, and four operas). Also I haven't been feeling well, even missed the premiere of Ferneyhough O Lux on Wednesday. On the other hand I usually can find the stamina for Mahler. Though no-one can conduct four concerts in a row! (grin)

Maybe it was a bad night for everyone. Christopher Maltman likes singing Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, although it's better suited to a more agile, lighter-limbed voice than his. Perhaps Maltman was under the weather too, for his voice seemed trapped, as if his lungs weren't expanding to fill out the sound. He's a good enough singer to know when something's not right, so I felt his pain (rather than the pain of the protagonist in the cycle). He must have felt even more frustrated than I did, though I suspect most people didn't notice. Eschenbach probably did, as he slowed the orchestra down, giving Maltman more room, but Maltman, concentrating so hard entered too early at one point. Still, good marks for effort.

Eschenbach's forte is clarity, a good value for Mahler 9th where the music seems to rise upwards until it disintegrates into the ether. (read more HERE) Getting to that level depends on starting with the goal in mind. Eschenbach's done it before, so I was surprised by the first movement. At first, it felt like Eschenbach were letting the LPO do their thing, which is valid enough, but ultimately, it's not a good idea for conductor and orchestra to pull in different directions. Oddly flat playing in some sections, but that's not fatal. Unlike Beckmesser, I don't carry a slate and stick.

The orchestra seemed to want to do fulsome Romantic way, which is fair enough, but Eschenbach knows his Mahler well enough to have his own ideas on interpretation. Swooping legato in the orchestra, which would have done credit to Brahms. Eschenbach's hands snap suddenly, breaking the line and restoring balance. Actually quite an interesting effect, but ultimately it's more satisfying when orchestra and conductor are on the same track. A perfectly good enough performance though. Eschenbach will always be a million miles more interesting than many others. Why Michael Tilson Thomas or even odder, Lorin Maazel?

Which leads me to think about reputation and musicality. Tilson Thomas and Maazel get the gigs because they're famous though they're so safe they kill the music. Eschenbach, Rattle, Boulez and even Abbado get flak because they're famous. It's a kind of reverse snobbery, perfectly human, but means applying non-musical values. But musicians in orchestras like these aren't so stupid and have more experience than many of their detractors.

What anyone thinks doesn't matter nearly so much is how they've arrived at what they think. For each person who forms an opinion by thinking carefully, there will always be a thousand who have no idea what they're talking about but need to make waves. There used to be, and maybe still is, a fashion for collecting reviews, extracting phrases out of context and then producing an uber-survey. (Beware of cut and paste reviews too, which can be dodgy.)  Such things look authoritative but are worthless. "Database Hoarders",  they used to be called, pundits who live in cyberspace not reality.

It's a crock, however impressive. But it needs facing because modern technology is changing the way we think. Everyone has opinions, but how do we sort them out? There will always be more who don't know or care than those who do.  That's not elitist, that's just life. Majority means nothing. Opinions are not equal, so the idea of treating them as data is fundamentally flawed. They are only valid in context and can't be mechanically processed. Ultimately, there is just no sunbstitute for the long process of listening, learning, developing a broad perspective.

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