What do you get when you cross a metaphysically inclined German tough guy with a liberté et égalité French orchestra? Beautiful music? Maybe. Maybe not.
Christoph Eschenbach is the metaphysically inclined German tough guy. Although I’ve never seen the man conduct, I know someone who has, and he swears that Eschenbach led the best Mahler Eighth he’d ever heard. Of course, it was the only Mahler Eighth he’d ever heard live, and that’s a piece that always takes a listener to the gates of paradise. I have heard Eschenbach’s recordings, and he seems to have the ability to be excruciatingly ecstatic and painfully precise. But while this is a dandy way to conduct Austro-German music, Eschenbach won’t be conducting metaphysical Austro-German music at Hill on Wednesday, January 23; he’ll be conducting sumptuously sensuous French music.
That’s because he’ll be conducting the liberté et égalité Orchestre de Paris. The last time I saw them play, they were so much for liberté that the players couldn’t be bothered to wear the same sort of concert attire (although the women in the orchestra did look gorgeous, as Parisian women always do), and they were so much for égalité that they couldn’t be bothered to play together, unless by accident. Of course, they were led by Lorin Maazel, a conductor with the uncanny ability to inspire disdain in orchestras (and who does disdain better than the French?). But when they did play together, the Orchestre de Paris proved itself to be easily the best French orchestra I have ever heard: a staggeringly beautiful, stunningly powerful ensemble with possibly the most distinctly characteristic tone of any orchestra in the world: with woodwinds as tart as a kiss, strings as smooth as a caress, and brass with the strength to tear down the walls of the hardest heart.
But what will Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris be like together? The curtain-raiser is Messiaen’s earliest orchestral work, a piece called Les offrendes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings) that sounds as if it came from a sex-starved French Catholic with only an orchestra to assuage his longings. The core of the program is three fabulous works by Ravel: the sensual second suite from his ballet Daphnis et Chloé, La Valse (the decline and fall of the Austrian Empire in 3/4 time), and his unbearably exquisite Piano Concerto. Will Eschenbach make the French toe the line and play accurately? Will the French twist Eschenbach around their fingers and make him surrender to their seductive tone? Or will they join together as tough-guy husband and gorgeous but willful wife to make precisely beautiful music together?
The real test will be Ravel’s sublime Piano Concerto. The outer movements are gaspingly gorgeous, but they’re just the aperitif and the dessert. The Adagio assai, the main course of the work, is Truth Made Beauty and Beauty Made Truth. If Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris, with hot-shot pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, can make that realité une verité with precision and beauty, I’ll be in metaphysical ecstasy.