Messiaen, with maestro on piano

Posted: October 14, 2003

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.

The smartly planned concert began with two Debussy works, the unaccompanied solo flute piece Syrinx played with meaning and elegance by Jeffrey Khaner, and the String Quartet in G minor (Op. 10), with violinists Richard Amoroso and Yayoi Numazawa, violist David Nicastro, and guest cellist Yumi Kendall all delivering thoughtfully rendered incidental solos.

Debussy's alternative-logic melodies - revolutionary in their time but now absorbed into our lingua franca - were good acclimatization for Messiaen's further-afield abstract descriptiveness, which in Visions touches on the composer's usual, wide-ranging reference points: the creation of light, the agony of Jesus, apocalypse, sex and, of course, birds.

Duties between the two pianists were divided curiously. Barto had the first piano part, in which the composer invested "velocity, charm and tone quality." The younger Barto was known only for the first attribute, but he has matured: His playing here had abundant timbral range and refinement. Eschenbach played second piano, to which the composer gave elemental power - risky for a part-time keyboardist.

It all worked as it should, considering that the two pianos are sometimes purposefully unsynchronized. The dreamy, creation-of-light opening movement made the right kind of ethereal impression without losing the details in a haze of pedaling. The fourth "Amen of Desire" movement was characterized by Eschenbach with an escalating fierceness. Here and elsewhere, Eschenbach's longtime quest for expressive sense in atonal, Schoenberg-like music came into play. Amid the welter of Messiaen's dense textures, Eschenbach underscored the recurring downward gesture that put everything around it into revelatory focus.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or dstearns@phillynews.com.

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