Christoph Eschenbach: The Early Recordings
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1801) [38:14]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, “Emperor” (1809) [40.07]
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier” (1818) [49:54]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Preludes, Op. 28 (1839) [40:55]
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45 (1841) [6:10]
Prelude in A flat major, Op. posth (1834) [0:39]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (1838) [19:43]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in A major, D959 (1828) [40:04]
Piano Sonata in B flat major, D960 (1828) [43:15]
Hans Werner HENZE (b. 1926)
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1967) [49:18]
Christoph Eschenbach (piano); London Symphony Orchestra/Hans Werner Henze (Beethoven, Op. 37; Henze); Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa (Beethoven, Op. 73)
rec. December 1971, Fairfield Hall, Croydon (Beethoven, Op. 37); October 1973, Symphony Hall, Boston (Beethoven, Op. 73); June 1970, Bavaria Studio, Munich (Beethoven, Op. 106); October 1971, Tonstudio, Berlin (Chopin); May 1966, Beethovensaal, Hanover (Schumann); April 1973, Studio Lankwitz, Berlin (Schubert, D959); April 1974, Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin (Schubert D960); April 1970, Wembley Town Hall (Henze)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9189 [6 CDs: 78:21 + 49:54 + 67:27 + 40:04 + 43:15 + 49:18]
Christoph Eschenbach is currently Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, having held similar posts in such places as Houston, Philadelphia and Paris. Since the early 1970s his career has centred around conducting, and this modestly priced collection is a timely reminder that he originally made his reputation as a pianist.
Record companies sometimes make things easy for us. The booklet notes by Ates Orga accompanying this box sometimes quote from original reviews, giving us an idea what to think even before we hear the performance. Trevor Harvey, for example, writing in the Gramophone in 1972, heard “penetrating insight and brilliance” in Eschenbach’s performance of Beethoven’s C minor concerto, but found the conductor’s contribution – Hans Werner Henze, no less – “often sluggish”. Getting on for forty years later, I can only agree with the first judgement as much as I disagree with the second. I was fascinated to hear what kind of a showing Henze would make as a conductor in such a work. The very opening is smooth and soft-grained, and the orchestral sound is more early Romantic than anything Classical. But to my ears the playing and the pacing of the music is full of character, and when the orchestra is given a purely subsidiary role the conductor and soloist are as one. This is a lyrical view of the concerto, less severe than many readings. A certain over-emphasis when accents are marked in, both from the soloist and the orchestra, is the only point which disturbed me, and this is emphasised by a close recording. Otherwise I found this a most satisfying performance.
I’m not usually an admirer of Ozawa, especially in the Viennese classics, so I had some misgivings before hearing the performance of the “Emperor Concerto”. I was wrong. The orchestral contribution is quite superb, unanimous, very subtle in accompanying passages. Just listen how the Boston players tuck in to the first movement tutti. Ozawa even manages to make something significant out of the inner strings scrubbing figures! Eschenbach is magnificent, strongly assertive where necessary, and, like his orchestra, highly sensitive in the moments when he accompanies orchestral solos. The second movement is very slow and tender, but otherwise the tempi do not draw attention to themselves. My only negative reaction rather confirmed my feelings about the C minor concerto, a certain harshness of tone, a hammering quality in louder passages such as the thundering octaves at several points in the first movement. The recording is superbly full, rich and detailed, but there are at least two clumsy edits, one example at 5:26 in the first movement so grievous that one wonders how it was allowed to pass.
I think the maxim “Life’s too short” will prove sadly true in respect of my ever making my own analysis of the fugal finale of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata. No, I’ll just have to be satisfied by the sense of awe this work always provokes in me, first at the composer’s extraordinary vision and second at the audacity of any pianist attempting to play it. Eschenbach’s performance is a very satisfying one, and since the opening demonstrates the two main drawbacks I found with the performance it makes sense to dispose of them straight away. First, he is quite free with the pulse here, and whilst the this opening is certainly very commanding, a real call to attention, the various liberties the pianist takes with pulse and metre do not always sound completely natural or convincing. And then there is the player’s tone. The word “clangy” is hardly a pretty one, but it quite satisfactorily describes the sound of the piano in louder passages here, and since I have already alluded to it in my comments on the concertos I can only assume that Eschenbach – whom I have never heard live – employs a massively percussive technique in louder passages which may please some but which disturbs me. That said, this first movement is full of drama. I found the tiny – in comparison – scherzo just right, the tempo skilfully judged and the off-beat rhythms perfectly executed to deceive the ear. The heart of the sonata is the extraordinary slow movement, and I can think of no higher praise than to say that Eschenbach’s intense, rapt performance, at one of the slowest tempi I have heard, held my attention throughout. This is almost unique in my experience in this movement which I always find a personal challenge as a listener. Textures are beautifully clear, notably in the passages for crossed hands. The finale generates enormous cumulative power and excitement and is perfectly satisfying on its own terms, though I am once again intermittently troubled by the sound.
I’m less convinced by Eschenbach’s Chopin. Sheer power is less in order here, of course, but even so there are moments – such as the rapid repeated notes and octaves in the fifteenth prelude – where the sound is less than lovely. Otherwise there is bravura and splendidly clear virtuosity in plenty. The following prelude, for example, in B flat minor, is technically brilliant at a breathtaking speed. But the last prelude of all points up what is missing. It is again brilliantly played, but the score is marked appassionato, whereas this reading seems distant, cold and certainly not passionate. And where is the poetry that one associates with the Chopin playing artists such as Rubinstein or, more recently, Ingrid Fliter. The Chopin is preferable, though, to the Schumann, which will bring pleasure to few, I fear. These pieces are on the whole hard driven and communicate very little notion of childhood, either real or remembered. The fifth piece, “Glückes genug”, contains no dynamic mark higher than piano, though you’d never realise it from this performance. In the following “Wichtige Begebenheit” Eschenbach surely goes too far in his reading of the accents, and the well-known “Träumerei”, a most touching piece when given simply and at face value, is excessively romantic and dragged out. In general, the gentle pieces are too overtly expressive and the more turbulent ones too forced and violent. To all that must be added the two seconds of silence – all ambient noise suppressed – between each piece, effectively killing what little atmosphere the pianist has been able to create.
The two Schubert sonatas will, I think, provoke mixed reactions from listeners. If you like Schubert straight, classical, with the bare bones of the score presented, as it were, without commentary, then you might well enjoy these performances. But if – like me – you think Schubert can stand a bit of interpretation, that the romantic side of his nature should come out, you might find them a bit wanting. And then I come back to the thorny question of the sound the pianist was making at this stage of his career. Other pianists manage to make the opening of the A major sonata arresting enough without quite such harsh accents and percussive sound. Greater flexibility of pulse, too, is needed to express the essential Schubertian grace. Eschenbach’s playing is most beautiful in the beguiling second subject group of this first movement, but as soon as the accent changes to something more demonstrative, so does the instrumental colour. The development section of this same movement features a series of repeated chords in the accompaniment. When these chords pass into the right hand they are unpleasantly hammered out, and when the opening music returns the effect is one of anger rather than something majestic. The closing bars, however, are beautifully done. In short, a too-literal approach to anything above forte, plus a rather rigid attitude to pulse, make for Schubert rather short on charm.
I was much more taken by the B flat Sonata. The very opening is as close to Olympian calm as can be imagined, very beautiful indeed. When this wonderful theme is repeated, forte, I feared the worst, as the hammering tone reappeared. But gladly the work allows for far less of that forced, hectoring quality; on the contrary, it requires the pianist to play with sweetness and delicacy. The first movement is unsurpassed for caressing tenderness. The second movement is very slow indeed, a challenge to performer and listener alike. The scherzo and trio are insouciant, just as they should be, and the finale – with the exception of two fortissimo outbursts – chatters along in a satisfyingly congenial way. The emotional world the work inhabits is well evoked too. The first and last movements are equivocal. Those low, left hand trills in the first movement, what do they mean? And the sudden silences in both movements? The octave which opens the finale and which is used to such curious and disturbing effect in the passage before the final coda? Eschenbach places these events before us in a masterly way, creating just the right balance of classical restraint and overt Romantic expressiveness. Schubert gives no answers, and Eschenbach simply acts as his most eloquent advocate.
The odd-man-out of this collection is the Second Concerto by Hans Werner Henze. In three movements played without a break, the work lasts for almost fifty minutes, roughly the same length as another second piano concerto, that by Brahms. It was composed for Eschenbach. It is in no sense a traditional piano concerto. Although many passages must be phenomenally taxing to play, there is no virtuoso display for its own sake, and no sense of struggle for dominance between the soloist and the orchestra. For much of the time, especially in the first movement, the piano barely asserts itself as an important solo element. This first movement is predominantly slow, made up of fragments of melody and with much figuration in the solo part. The thunderous final bars seem unjustified by what has gone before, and lead directly into a scherzo which is grim indeed, though undeniably exciting for much of the time. There are slower passages and others which have a cadenza-like feel about them. The finale is in several sections, the first of which, according to Eschenbach, features “a new style of piano writing” exploiting the pianist’s ability to spin out long legato lines over long periods of time. I can’t hear this myself, I confess. There are a couple more ear-splitting moments, including the final crescendo, but the work as a whole leaves a sombre impression, even a certain greyness, and I can’t help wondering how many times Eschenbach, or any other pianist, has been able to programme it since it was first given in 1968.
Very much a mixed bag, but the best is outstanding.