This was odd. Not that one ever expects a routine performance from that interesting conductor Christoph Eschenbach. But why, for a start, had he chosen to seat the London Philharmonic Orchestra on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall with the first violins, cellos and double basses all to his left and the second violins and violas, backed by trombones, out to his right? The effect, particularly in Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, was curiously to detach the middle-range inner parts of the textures from the top and bass lines – but to what purpose?
For that matter, why did he launch Schubert's first movement at the slowest tempo one has ever heard, then repeatedly impede forward momentum with deliberate slowings-down at the ends of paragraphs? Granted, this extraordinary score, composed five years before the death of Beethoven, seems to open the door to later Romantic vistas. Was Eschenbach trying to emulate Mahler's notoriously interventionist ways with the Viennese classics? But, if so, where was the Mahlerian electricity?
There was plenty of this, at least, in Mahler's own song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde, which occupied the second half: the opening "Drinking Song of the Earth's Sorrow" was febrile to a fault. But, whether because of the orchestral seating or the Hall's still unaccountable acoustics, textures tended to sound shrill and bass-light throughout, while the soloists, singing from what seems to be an acoustic dead-spot front stage, sometimes had to strain to be heard.
If the Austrian lyric tenor Nikolai Schukoff fought a losing battle against the tumultuous scoring of the opening song, the mezzo-soprano numbers fortunately fell to the sympathetic, full-toned voice of Petra Lang, stepping in for an unwell Mihoko Fujimura.
Instantly establishing her authority in the poignant second song of autumn loneliness, she, Eschenbach and the exquisitely responsive lead woodwinds of the LPO proceeded to run the full gamut of longing, sorrow and loss, redeemed by Nature's renewal in the culminating "Farewell" with its ineffable, far-horizon fade-out. It was almost a minute before the audience dared to break the final silence.Reuse content