Quadruple play from Eschenbach

Posted: May 23, 2007

Completely by chance and unbeknownst to each other, three recording labels have simultaneously hatched a Christoph Eschenbach retrospective, touching base with his multiple artistic guises in four titles reflecting such varied modes of expression that you strain to hear the same person behind it all.

Most obvious are Eschenbach's latest from his two music directorships, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Orchestre de Paris, both on Ondine. Eschenbach the mentor is evident in a pair of Beethoven concertos with Lang Lang and Orchestre de Paris that debuted at the top of the Billboard magazine classical charts. The best, though, are buried treasures - recordings from Eschenbach's final concert-pianist years, released in Europe in the 1970s but not here (at least officially) until this new budget-priced two-disc set in EMI's Gemini series.

In the orchestral recordings, the current rule of thumb - that his interpretations are more fully realized in Paris than in Philadelphia - seems temporarily reversed. Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 from Philadelphia begins with a suitably emphatic first movement, but receives such convincingly personal treatment in subsequent movements that, with the added appeal of excellent surround sound, the release is seriously competitive in the vast Tchaikovsky discography.

Most impressive is the performance's big picture: After the brass fanfares of the first movement, the second is phrased as if sung by an art-song vocalist with a secret text. The pizzicato third movement pops with sotto-voce expectation, and the final movement arrives with speaker-shattering force and passagework so clean that it's manic. The filler includes excerpts from Tchaikovsky's piano suite The Seasons played by Eschenbach on solo piano. He talks about how much he's come to love these works; I'm not there yet.

The pair of Roussel symphonies (Nos. 1 and 4) with Orchestre de Paris are less glossy, more thoughtful than Charles Dutoit's suave recordings on Warner. But there's a reason these are the lesser-played of Roussel's four. The Symphony No. 1 has lots of impulsively assembled ideas plus nature descriptions that set this composer's personality apart from his better-known countrymen Debussy and Ravel.

Initially, Eschenbach is puzzling: He keeps a lid on the piece, minimizing its extremes, seeking integrity and finding it in content that proves to be rich and coherent enough to make impressive, long-term structural statements. The fourth symphony is a bewildering parade of Gallic wit, vague introspection and much rhythmic ado about nothing. The late Charles Munch made it work with his naturally driving sense of rhythm. Eschenbach's recording, however tidy and well-played, doesn't crack the code.

As easy as it is to think that pianists didn't fully meet Mozart piano concertos on their own terms until Murray Perahia, Peter Serkin and Mitsuko Uchida, Ingrid Haebler and Lili Kraus were thoroughly inhabiting Mozart at mid-century - as was Eschenbach in these concertos (Nos. 9, 19, 21, 23 and 27) recorded between 1977 and 1980 for EMI. Because Eschenbach had announced that conducting would be his main concentration in the future, these piano recordings weren't much promoted or circulated.

Those who know the British LPs or the briefly imported Royal Classics CDs of these performances know he favored a dry, precise but still glistening piano sound with a manner that, if anything, errs on the side of demure. But he always expresses individuality where it belongs - in the music's deep tissue, where the dotted rhythms in the slow movement of Piano Concerto No. 23, for example, turn into a whispered confession. Few pianists express so much in a single, elegant note. With Eschenbach doubling as conductor, the London Philharmonic Orchestra sounds as shiny as a just-polished Steinway.

Maybe that's why Eschenbach is a needed guide for the ever-excitable Lang Lang, whose Deutsche Grammophon contract has led him to ever more fashion-forward clothes and increasingly high hair, but (thank God) more serious repertoire. In this Beethoven disc (Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 4) you could predict that his playing of the first concerto would be crisp and jumpy with a first-movement cadenza that rocks. All true. And that's just what this concerto needs.

His young man's approach to the deeper Piano Concerto No. 4 works but in a more limited way. There's a welcome, wide-eyed awareness of the music's greatness with playing that aspires to a lofty beauty. Lang Lang is also out to vary the articulation of every phrase (a good thing) but sometimes for its own sake (a not-so-good thing). His pianissimos have a youthful earnestness but slightly overheated dramatic sense. Technically, he plays with admirable force and color that has only come about in recent years.

Eschenbach's elegant influence is most felt in the second movement's Zen-like confrontation between piano and orchestra. Accusations of vulgarity that often dog Lang Lang will be answered here. Eschenbach is plenty sensitive, but the Orchestre de Paris doesn't deliver the kind of distilled specificity heard when this pair played the piece in Philadelphia.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.


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