Christoph Eschenbach’s performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony on Saturday night was extraordinarily focused, exceptionally well-played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and, I thought, grippingly dramatic. His approach, which valued rhythm to a high degree and treated meter as the complex life force controlling this long symphony (sometimes called the “Tragic”), seemed to confirm something I’ve long suspected about the German pianist-turned-conductor. He must have been born with a golden metronome in whatever part of the brain it is that controls our pulse.
For 89 minutes, from the driving opening to the final explosion, the Sixth, the only work on the program, felt like a train ride through a war zone. We witnessed life going on through the windows. Despite the presence of troops and the constant sense of impending danger and an atmosphere of lamentation, people still fell in love, danced, ate and drank, and dreamed of warm days in the country. Cowbells rang in the distance, and for a fleeting moment or two, we too could allow ourselves to be oblivious.
The rails weren’t straight, so we slowed down and sped up, often unexpectedly. The windows were kept spotless, so we saw everything. But we couldn’t get off and certainly couldn’t change fate. A shell could at any moment have blown us to smithereens. In the end, one did.
Back to Eschenbach and rhythm. This is a difficult subject, one that I don’t understand and that perhaps, given his troubles in Philadelphia and Paris (cities where he heads orchestras that have not renewed his contracts), some musicians may not either. One part of Eschenbach’s music making is a thrilling rhythmic rigidity. In the 1970s, as a young pianist, he made some recordings of Schubert sonatas so excitingly pulse-centric that he all but turned a 19th century Viennese master into a 20th century American Minimalist.
Another side of Eschenbach, though, is his sense of structural fluidity. Traditionalists complain that he fusses too much, that he’ll slow down or speed up for no apparent reason. On the one side, he’s a cold machine; on the other, he’s willful. But when things go well, he’s simply making music work the way the body operates. The heart beats. The pulse is always there, but we proceed as if we are independent of biological patterns.
How this translated Saturday to Mahler, who intended his symphonies to contain vast panoramas of life-experience inexpressible in any other medium, was primarily through drawing the musicians’ attention to the basics of the composer’s score. Eschenbach emphasized sharp attacks, and the sharpness could be cutting. From the start, the strings marched with a military snap.
When Eschenbach visited Disney last year with his Philadelphia Orchestra, balances were screwy. As a conductor, Eschenbach is a brilliant tactician, but as a music director he appears a less effective commander. He couldn’t, for instance, persuade his orchestra to rehearse in the hall, and the headstrong players badly misjudged a unique acoustical space.
But Saturday, Eschenbach and the Philharmonic provided those stabbing attacks with the exact amount of resonance needed to create color and personality. Yes, he did exaggerate tempos, but he did so only when Mahler suggested in the score that he wanted a change. Maybe Eschenbach went further than Mahler intended, but maybe he didn’t. The only evidence we have of Mahler performing is a piano roll, and the composer was more like Eschenbach than not.
What throws the listener is that Eschenbach’s taffy pulls are accomplished with no loss of that inevitable sense of pulse. In this sense, Eschenbach’s Mahler is very modern. Elliott Carter’s metrical modulations work on a similar principle. Eschenbach treated the syncopated rhythms in the Scherzo as though Mahler had anticipated “The Rite of Spring” (written a decade after the Sixth and two years after Mahler’s death in 1911).
However much he has a taste for thin, tangy textures, Eschenbach still revels in beauty. Strings, winds and brass made a lovely blend in the pastoral Andante, which was here unusually non-nostalgic. It was, rather, timeless.
The Finale follows from the benign Andante like a war machine trampling the grass. Eschenbach camouflaged Mahler’s Humvee with sensual metallic colors. The threat was in the emphatic pulse. The famous hammer strokes -- a percussionist, like Thor, whacking a big wooden box with a mallet -- were simply part of the arsenal’s unstoppable onslaught.
The symphony is always meant to shock at the end. The Finale fades into many seconds of quiet, falling brass and an ominous, barely audible timpani rumble. The explosion comes when you least expect it.
Eschenbach’s ending surprised less than most. The time bomb was ticking, and we knew the hour. But the devastation was the same.