Philadelphia Orchestra welcomes Christoph Eschenbach back, with cellist Alisa Weilerstein in mercurial Schumann

Peter Dobrin, Classical Music Critic

Updated: Friday, February 2, 2018, 2:37 PM

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein

Whether performer or listener, you either get Schumann or you don’t. Alisa Weilerstein does. Thursday night with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the cellist gave those who never did understand the composer’s mysterious contours some compelling avenues for listening.

Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A Minor is so mercurial it seems to be made of strands of DNA from different people. Many of the composer’s works bounce back and forth between two different moods. (Schumann even granted these opposing dramatic forces within himself the names of characters.)

But the Cello Concerto is even more discursive than that. It slips into distinct corners of the psyche with no warning, and Weilerstein adjusted instantaneously — in tones from wan to saturated, with varied articulation, and using attacks of assorted levels of touch. Her sound isn’t huge (as it wasn’t in her fall recital here with pianist Inon Barnatan), but the cellist found ways for the piece’s jovial laughter, skittering joy, and tender whispers to become their most potent selves.

Her encore on this night was a slow but effectively meditative take on the “Sarabande” from the Bach Cello Suite No. 3.

Christoph Eschenbach is back in Verizon Hall for these concerts. He’s been known to be a mercurial thinker, too, though he deferred to Weilerstein elegantly here. It’s tempting to think that Eschenbach, always a superb pianist and the orchestra’s music director from 2003 to 2008, hears the orchestra as a piano — to be played as a single instrument bent to his will. But in all three works on this program, there wasn’t that sense of living in the moment, expressively speaking, that sometimes came across when he was music director. In fact, there was evidence in the orchestra’s security in spots that the conductor had worked out expressive turns in rehearsal.

Weber’s “Overture” to Der Freischütz had a slow start, but the horns were unfazed. It was especially satisfying to hear such a sustained, solid bottom to the section with Ernesto Tovar Torres, the orchestra’s new fourth hornist, in the lowest reaches.

Eschenbach’s view of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was consistent throughout. He took the famous first two statements of the piece in a single breath, and his approach remained terse and athletic. The sound was lean. The way Eschenbach emphasized certain moments in the last movement seemed arbitrary, but only slightly, and with playing as charismatic as that of flutist David Cramer and oboist Richard Woodhams, you hardly minded.

Additional performance at 8 p.m. Saturday, Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $10-$168. Information: 215-893-1999 or philorch.org.

Peter Dobrin, Classical Music Critic

Read full story: Philadelphia Orchestra welcomes Christoph Eschenbach back, with cellist Alisa Weilerstein in mercurial Schumann

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