Concert review: Christoph Eschenbach Barbican / RFH, London

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The Independent Culture
When Alfred Schnittke spins a pleasant tune, you know there's trouble in store. Tuesday's Royal Festival Hall Philharmonia concert saw Schnittke's Fourth Violin Concerto open to the sullen tolling of bells, then brighten for a benign little woodwind chorale. But the warning signs were there in front of us: two pianos (one prepared), harpsichord, multifarious percussion and the Mephistophelian spectre of Gidon Kremer, poised for action in a maniacal central movement, a sort of "chaconne-a-la-presto" that swept through the hall like an aural tornado - convulsive, unkempt and mercilessly insistent. Kremer leapt, swerved or crouched, his left hand a panicking spider, his bow flying faster than the eye could see. The climax passed, and Schnittke ushered in his long, sombre Adagio, jollied half-way by what sounded like a quick visit to Lieutenant Kije's wedding, but otherwise grim to the core. Come the close, and a good portion of the audience left, exhausted and confused.

But then they'd already confronted another Kremer tour de force, his own arrangement of the orchestral suite from Arthur Lourie's opera The Blackamoor of Peter the Great. Kremer took the leader's chair while Christoph Eschenbach sculpted one astonishing motive after another, with significant side-glances at Schoenberg, Janacek and the young Prokofiev. The solo parts combined instrumental solos and aria transcriptions but the sum effect was of a provocative miniaturist with an ear for the future.

We left the hall only vaguely aware that the programme had also included a dapper Prokofiev Classical Symphony and a white-hot account of Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, ardently played and with every pulsing accelerando calculated to perfection.

Eschenbach is a fastidious interpreter: his gestures are firm and precise, his manner, consistently alert. The previous Wednesday's Barbican concert with the LSO opened to an unusually high-powered performance of Dvorak's Carnival overture. The brass were on excellent form (especially in the closing pages), whereas the strings showed their mettle in a thoughtfully shaped reading of Brahms's Double Concerto featuring Pinchas Zukerman and Ralph Kirshbaum as soloists. At first, it seemed as if Zukerman was simply uninterested: he'd fidget, size his bow, scrape the floor with his shoe, glance ahead, then take up the action as and when he had to. OK, we know from Heifetz's example that an indifferent stance can be musically meaningless, but here it really was indicative of what we heard - until half-way through the first movement, when Zukerman suddenly turned on the heat and the whole performance sprang to life. Thereafter, it was a case of mixed standards, with occasional enthusiasm from Zukerman, sensitively bowed commentary from Kirshbaum and a nicely stylised presentation of the orchestral part.

Beyond the interval, Kirshbaum re-appeared for a fresh, lyrically voiced reading of Dvorak's Cello Concerto, with Eschenbach attending to every detail in what must surely be the most luminous concerto accompaniment ever composed. The spirit was there, the feeling too, although a bigger tone would have made for stronger dialogue in parts of the first movement. Still, it was a loving statement and the closing pages were - as ever - unbearably poignant.

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