Prom 67: Philadelphia Orchestra/Eschenbach, Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday 06 September 2006
Fate, it seems, came knocking one day early. A small fire kept a large audience from Sunday night's close encounter with Philadelphia's finest, the reassuring efficiency of the Royal Albert Hall sprinkler system well and truly putting the dampers on the annual Proms rendition of Beethoven's Ninth.
The superstitious among us may now be questioning the wisdom of programming both Beethoven and Tchaikovsky's fatalistic fifth symphonies for Monday, in such close proximity to Schiller's "Ode to Joy".
In the event, there was little joy and fate definitely did not play the winning hand. Christoph Eschenbach's monumentally slick account of Beethoven's Fifth took the shock of the new out of the shock of the old. More retro than revolutionary, the only frisson of surprise came with the opening bars, where Eschenbach's driving tempo seemed momentarily to fly in the face of his otherwise stubbornly 19th-century presentation.
Hard-sticked timpani might have been intended to sharpen the well-upholstered sound, but the natural, deep-pile luxuriance of the famed Philadelphia strings (at full strength) were a complete contradiction in terms. The woodwind choir might just as well have stayed at home for all the impression they made as a group.
Solos - like the plaintive, time-stretching oboe in the first movement - were exquisitely top-of-the-range, but what did they mean in context? The sense of striving in the piece was nowhere. It sat smugly, contentedly, in a comfort zone of its own making.
At least the "fabulous Philadelphians" could luxuriate with impunity in Tchaikovsky's Fifth. The first horn did so with great distinction in the slow movement. But again this fiercely impassioned music was rendered merely showy by Eschenbach's portentousness. Fate may have come knocking a day early but this conductor was hellbent on having him leave a day late.
A trombone-driven moment of rashness at the climax of the first movement development had me sitting up and taking note, but the rest was distinguished only by its efficiency. No personality, no soul - just display.
BBC Proms to 9 September (020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms)
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