When the Orchestre de Paris was founded in 1967 Christoph Eschenbach had just started conducting lessons with George Szell but was otherwise a star pianist of independent personality ranking high in the Deutsche Grammophon stable (his first Concerto recording for the marque was with Karajan). A previous music director of this orchestra (2000-10), he retains the affection and expectation of Parisian audiences: his venerated standing and the promise of an inviting programme guaranteed a sell-out concert. With Eschenbach you're never going to get histrionics nor easy theatre. He's very much an aristocrat of the old German school, a middle-European of culture and pencilled posture who prefers flexible tempos to fixed ones, believing that “quicker tempos tend to court superficiality”, a musician whose overriding priority is the score – foreground, subtexts and all.
His view of Dvořák's ‘New World’ Symphony emphasised scale and poetics. And, like the rest of his programme, dealt in a panoply of images pastoralising and peopling the landscape in thoughtful ways, here linked, there detached. Happily, signposted and emphatic, he gave us the first movement repeat – not as a matter of duty but as a means of coaxing out new details, revisiting the texture through tantalisingly bared lower or middle voices, each subtly lit and dynamically angled to entice ear and attention. The Largo dreamed like I've rarely heard, Gildas Prado glowingly beautiful in his cor anglais solo, the orchestra breathing with all the quality, oneness and self-listening exchange and sweep of a fine-bred chamber ensemble. The Scherzo (featuring a remarkably toned triangle) was bucolic and varied, touched in the lyrical episodes and central Trio (woodwind delighting in their rapport) with moments of yielding Bohemian nostalgia more intense and lovingly caressed than we usually hear. Different energy levels took over the Finale, Eschenbach's deliberated dramatisation of the cellos and basses from bar 92 unleashing an unexpectedly primitive wildness. But then nobility and warm splendour returned, the brass section soaring throatily, atoning for its one loose entry towards the end of the slow movement, the volume generous but never pushed, the lunga corona of the fading last chord held for only so long. The curtain calls were appreciative and many.
Opening the concert, tingling from the outset, Ravel's La valse – violins divided to left and right, basses on the left, cellos in the centre, harps at the two o'clock position – impressed in the wealth of its imagery, its co-ordinated rubato (generously indulged), and the consistently high octane virtuosity of the players (flutter-tonguing flutes, bass clarinet, and velvet-plushed strings not least). In Eschenbach's hands was a meeting of Teutonic sensibility, Viennese dance and Parisian couture fused into a choreographic poem of unstoppable sensual passions, swirling veils and menacing shadows circa 1855. The sense of distant dancers, first glances, doors opening, the glitter of chandeliers, the spiralling whirl of encounter and intoxication, the journey from subterranean murmurs to the tam-tam roar of the final heated climax, was delivered with cinematic immediacy and infra-sonically throbbing pulse. The destruction of societies, the death of empires, was not Ravel's aim in this work, completed in 1920. Yet, faced with Eschenbach's emotive, subliminally nuanced panorama – on the one hand flesh-and-blood discourse, on the other mountingly machined precision – I couldn't quite banish the thought. In his speech-like phrasing of the darker, more muted passages Aleksandr Blok's Unknown Lady crossed my mind too, that lone girl of mystery, Russia 1906, “exuding mists and secret fragrances, ancient and legendary.”
If Bloch's Schelomo was more low-key maybe it was because the orchestra knows it less well (previously in 1999 under Dohnányi), and because Julian Steckel opted for a restrained approach overtly stressing and extracting the moderato aspect of the three sections, the first (opening with an unaccompanied lament) and third (drawing on earlier material) a Lento and Andante respectively. A reviewer of one early performance, in 1921, wrote of the orchestra palpitating “in all colours of the rainbow”, the “stupendous vortices [of sound falling] back in a shower of myriads of iridescent drops.” I didn't get that impression on this occasion. Nor, a century on from the work's composition, did the Hébraïque aspect appeal as much as formerly, sounding dated more than exotic, needing a stronger identity to power its message. This said, Schelomo enduringly tests a player's lyric powers. Steckel, favouring a modern Urs W. Mächler instrument, was nothing if not expressive, drawing a richly grained sound and finding space to shape the phrases into meaningful words. His encore sustained the mood – a gracious reading of the ‘Sarabande’ from J. S. Bach's C-major Suite (BWV1009), the cadences floating rapturously into nowhere, the auditorium darkened and still.