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Christoph Eschenbach - The Early Recordings

Beethoven / Chopin / London Sym Orch / Eschenbach
Release Date: 11/15/2011 
Label:  Brilliant Classics   Catalog #: 9189  
Composer:  Ludwig van BeethovenHans Werner HenzeFrédéric ChopinRobert Schumann,   ... 
Performer:  Christoph Eschenbach
Conductor:  Hans Werner HenzeSeiji Ozawa
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony OrchestraBoston Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 6 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews


CD 1: BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 (Hans Werner Henze, cond; London SO). Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor” (Seiji Ozawa, cond; Boston SO) (78:21)

CD 2: BEETHOVEN Read more class="ARIAL12b">Piano Sonata No. 29, “Hammerklavier” (49:54)

CD 3: CHOPIN 24 Preludes, op. 28. Prelude No. 25 in c?, op. 45. Prelude No. 26 in A?, op. posth. SCHUMANN Kinderszenen (67:27)

CD 4: SCHUBERT Piano Sonata in A, D 959 (40:04)

CD 5: SCHUBERT Piano Sonata in B?, D 960 (43:15)

CD 6: HENZE Piano Concerto No. 2 (Hans Werner Henze, cond; London SO) (49:18)

Over the course of the past 18 months I managed to acquire clean vinyl copies of most of these recordings, which were otherwise unavailable—until now, that is. So it goes! I’m glad, actually, that Brilliant Classics has released this set, because it will give a new generation of collectors the chance to discover, inexpensively, that Christoph Eschenbach had a career as a pianist before he began to focus on conducting in 1972. Most of these recordings predate 1972, then, although the “Emperor” comes from 1973, and the two Schubert sonatas come from 1973 and 1974.

These are by no means Eschenbach’s complete early recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. He recorded what today turns out to be 15 CDs worth of music by Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and others. These appear to be available only from Japan, however. There’s also Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Herbert von Karajan, a recording reissued in the “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” series, and now, in a 13-CD Karajan/Beethoven box. So, these are not “the” early recordings, these are “some” early recordings. Even so, this set is well worth acquiring for the reason stated in the first paragraph.

Why would composer Hans Werner Henze conduct Eschenbach in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3? Perhaps it has something to do with the working relationship between the two men; Henze dedicated his Piano Concerto No. 2 (on CD 6) to Eschenbach in 1967. If one hopes that Henze will bring some kind of special composer’s insight to this music, though, disappointment might result. His opinions about this score seem quite average, and he doesn’t allow the music to take wing. Fortunately, Eschenbach’s keyboard technique exceeds Henze’s baton skills, although his approach to this music is similar: studied and very sober. Eschenbach is rarely a demonstrative pianist—he says more by what he does not say—and so the drama in this concerto is muted. Rather than being swept away, one turns one’s admiring attention to the mechanics of Eschenbach’s phrasing, dynamics, and so on. An analytical reading, this. Much the same can be said of the “Emperor” Concerto, although Seiji Ozawa’s conducting is lighter than Henze’s in the Third. Ozawa seems intent on downplaying the work’s swagger in favor of more a genial approach, and Eschenbach goes along with it.

I think Eschenbach’s solo recordings reveal his strengths more accurately. That’s not to say that there are not some irritants in his “Hammerklavier.” He has a tendency to exaggeratedly peck out staccato notes in the first and last movements, and his tone in the first movement is rather metallic, although that probably is exacerbated by the engineering. On the other hand, there is power but not pomposity in the first movement, and the outer sections of the second have an unusual dance-like quality, which most pianists miss. One could hardly ask for a more rapt slow movement—it is not severe at all—and the final fugue, taken at a brave tempo, is really exciting, with nothing of the academic to it. I’d say that this is a young man’s reading, with some of a young man’s self-indulgence, but with a great deal of intelligence and brio as well.

Eschenbach did not record much Chopin. In fact, I don’t think he recorded any as a pianist, beyond these 26 preludes. I would have liked to hear more, because these readings are consistently interesting. He makes many interesting choices. For example, in the first half of the very first prelude, he articulates Chopin’s figurations very literally, but then seems to say, “Enough of that,” and lets his fancy take flight in the second half. (All this in 44 seconds!) He leaves no gap at all between the E?- and C-Minor preludes, and none between the B? and G Minor, either. The slower preludes are particularly slow and expressive. On the other hand, he has the technique to breeze through the quicker preludes impressively, although when Chopin’s textures get more complex—take, for instance, the D-Major and F?-Minor preludes, Eschenbach does not always maintain optimal clarity. His Chopin is in no way delicate. It can be sullen, even angry, euphoric, anxious, or agitated, but it never smacks of the salon.

One expects Eschenbach to excel in Schumann, however, and in Kinderszenen he does not disappoint. He is an adult looking affectionately at the world of childhood. Given the pianist’s traumatic childhood—his mother died in childbirth, and his father and grandmother were casualties of World War II, leaving young Christoph temporarily mute—the pianist’s simple, eloquent response to this music is touching. Eschenbach plays these miniatures with warmth and tenderness. This is one of the most gratifying recordings of this work that I know.

The big question around Eschenbach’s Schubert is not, “Is it worthwhile?” (it is, definitely), but “Where is the Sonata in C Minor, D 958?” Be that as it may, these recordings of Schubert’s two final sonatas are at least as good as any recorded in the last 40 years. In the opening movement of the Sonata in A, Eschenbach is muscular. The mood is one of control, but one feels the music’s incipient anger and frustration bubbling just below the music’s surface, and also pathos. The closing page magically draws a curtain across the stage. In the Andantino, Eschenbach’s slow, steady pace and hushed playing are unnerving—and very effective. The pianist transports us to another world. Eschenbach’s affinity for drawing out the dance-like elements in music reappears in the Scherzo, which becomes an elfin minuet under his fingers. In the finale, he brings us (as does Schubert) full circle, using playing of the utmost refinement and control to set off the barely hidden heaviness in the composer’s heart—the pain of things left undone and unsaid. Eschenbach finds even stranger worlds in the Sonata in B?. If his Chopin and Beethoven tend to be up-front, his Schubert is played closer to the vest. The long opening movement is flawlessly paced, and secretive in atmosphere—even the slightest contrasts in tempo and dynamics register mightily. Eschenbach almost dares the music to reach stasis in the Andante sostenuto, but the intensity remains high. After this, the Scherzo, also downplayed, almost seems like an afterthought—some startling accents notwithstanding—as does the final movement. There’s more to Eschenbach’s smoothness here than meets the ear, and when he allows a true fortissimo to blossom, the effect is galvanizing.

“And now for something completely different” is what Monty Python would have said about Hans Werner Henze’s piano concerto, following works by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin. Henze was moved to write it after hearing Eschenbach perform Schubert, but you will be hard-pressed to find a Schubertian influence in this work. I find myself torn between writing it off as a rather dated product of its time, or a challenging and potentially worthwhile work that requires thoughtful listening over an extended period. This is a big work: nearly 50 minutes long, and just as big in its gestures, which are more romantic than modern, even if the concerto’s language per se is contemporary. (Contemporary for 1967, anyway.) This is difficult listening, but there’s no doubting either Henze’s integrity or Eschenbach’s ability to give the concerto his all. This is now the work’s only available recording. (Rolf Plagge’s cpo recording, from 2000, is out of print.)

Brilliant’s booklet contains program notes by Ates Orga, who interviewed the pianist in 1979, and who also contributed notes to the “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” release devoted to Eschenbach more than a decade ago. The six discs are housed in individual sleeves, and the sleeves and the booklet fit into Brilliant’s usual clamshell packaging.

As I stated, younger collectors may not realize that Eschenbach was a great pianist before he was a great conductor. This retrospective will bring them up to speed. It won’t be everything to everyone, but most collectors will find enough of merit here to justify adding it to their collection.

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Piano no 3 in C minor, Op. 37 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Christoph Eschenbach (Piano)
Conductor:  Hans Werner Henze
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria 
Concerto for Piano no 2 by Hans Werner Henze
Performer:  Christoph Eschenbach (Piano)
Conductor:  Hans Werner Henze
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1967; Germany 
Concerto for Piano no 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 "Emperor" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Christoph Eschenbach (Piano)
Conductor:  Seiji Ozawa
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Boston Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1809; Vienna, Austria 
Preludes (24) for Piano, Op. 28 by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Christoph Eschenbach (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1836-1839; Paris, France 
Prelude for Piano in C sharp minor, B 141/Op. 45 by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Christoph Eschenbach (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1841; Paris, France 
Prelude for Piano in A flat major, B 86 by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Christoph Eschenbach (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1834; Paris, France 
Kinderszenen, Op. 15 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Christoph Eschenbach (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1838; Germany 
Sonata for Piano in A major, D 959 by Franz Schubert
Performer:  Christoph Eschenbach (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1828; Vienna, Austria 
Sonata for Piano in B flat major, D 960 by Franz Schubert
Performer:  Christoph Eschenbach (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1828; Vienna, Austria 

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