Though not rare, Christoph Eschenbach's returns to the keyboard - his first career - are infrequent and special occasions indeed. On piano, he practices his art under circumstances more circumscribed than when conducting, and with a bristling brinksmanship inherent to challenging repertoire prepared in an inevitably limited time between conducting assignments.
The young Eschenbach triumphed with intimidating repertoire, but the pianist-turned-conductor took on a piece that was in some ways as difficult on Sunday in a Philadelphia Orchestra Chamber Music concert. As part of "Messiaen Focus: Week 2," he and his frequent collaborator Tzimon Barto played the 45-minute Visions de l'Amen, a piece in which fantasy and discipline are in rare equal balance. The triumph, in this case, was Messiaen's: Though this sometimes difficult composer has received strong ovations in recent weeks, none I've seen have been so unreserved as Sunday's.