Fanfare Magazine

September 21, 2007

Eschenbach's Philadelphia Legacy: A Recording Contract with Ondine

By Peter Burwasser

Christoph Eschenbach is an intense musician and human being. When meeting him in person, one has the sense that he does not relax easily, which is telegraphed by his fiercely glowing eyes. His curt, Teutonic manner was apparent when we met in his dressing room behind Verizon Hall this past May to chat about his newest Ondine recording. But as soon as the conversation is steered towards the subject he loves so intensely, music, his whole body seems to melt a little, as he happily sings phrases from Beethoven symphonies and conducts an imaginary orchestra. More often, he is in front of a very real orchestra, namely, the one of which he is music director, the Philadelphia Orchestra.

This is, alas, a short term situation. The Philadelphia Orchestra announced in October of last year that the 2007-08 season would be his last. The common wisdom around town is that it was the strained relations between the maestro and the players that doomed this directorship, but much of the audience, including many veterans with well conditioned and sophisticated ears could not hear it. Ironically, Eschenbach has been receiving some of his best notices at this late point in his tenure, including rapturous praise for the magisterial Mahler Second that came at the end of the regular season, and the most successful US tour, in terms of audience reaction and critical response, in recent history.

Eschenbach will leave the Philadelphians with at least two important legacies. First, he has done some very good orchestra building, with the result that this fabled band sounds as luxe and agile as ever. His other major accomplishment has been to provide a venue for others to hear that great sound outside of the live concert experience, with his groundbreaking recording deal with the independent Finnish label Ondine. The head of Ondine is Reijo Kiilunen; the executive producer is Kevin Kleinmann. Eschenbach has worked with both of them before with his other regular ensemble, Orchestre de Paris (which is also losing the maestro as music director after this season).

"We worked out a way - the orchestra, myself and the producers - to make recordings possible in a difficult landscape. The musicians own the product, not the record companies. This is a big change. We were the first of the "Big five" to make records again." Eschenbach is no stranger to working with major labels. He has had a long relationship with Deutsche Grammophon, going back to his earlier career as a solo pianist, now renewed with recordings with Orchestre de Paris and pianist Lang Lang. But Eschenbach is happy to work with a small label like Ondine for the flexibility and freedom it gives the orchestra.

The Ondine series began with a recording that included some unusual programming, including Bohuslav Martinů's Memorial to Lidice , and Gideon Klein's Partita for Strings . It also featured a war-horse, the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra , and indeed, the rest of the recorded repertoire will consist of, as Eschenbach puts it, "big emotional pieces." Future releases include the Mahler Fourth Symphony, the Shostakovich Fifth, and the Sixth Symphony of Tchaikovsky.

The latest release features the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. Although this music has always been a mainstay of the Philadelphia Orchestra programming, it was once considered too emotional, even embarrassing, to a certain intellectual segment of the audience. I asked Eschenbach if he was aware that such a response to the music existed. "Yes. I was always against that perception. It is an immense masterpiece, but very nunanced in structure. It is a great vehicle for an orchestra to show both technical facility and sound." But can it be made to be too emotional? "I cannot answer this question. I do as I feel, go into all of the possibilities and find the right way." That approach includes an expansive opening tempo. "The main theme is prepared by the six measures before. There has to be air, that is why there is a ritard. It is not the tempo that is so important here but the pulse."

As with the previous recording of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, this release includes solo piano music by that composer as played by Eschenbach. Here he completes the set of The Seasons. Why this unusual choice for a symphonic release? "We had to fill up the record," he says with a smile. "For the Tchaikovsky Sixth we will do the 'Dumky' Trio."

The Ondine recordings ended a 10 year absence from the recording studio by one of the most recorded ensembles of all time. How has the new arrangement been working? "The response has been phenomenol. We are going into multiple pressings." The success of the recordings is also a testament to the excellent acoustics of the orchestra's new home, Verizon Hall. Eschenbach has been there through the five-year break-in period. "Slight adjustments have been made by the acoustics team. The main adjustment the orchestra made itself. Even with the best acoustics, the orchestra has to get a feel for the sound. We feel much better about it now."

This performance of one of the most recorded symphonies in the repertoire will provide fodder for both the foes and friends of Eschenbach's unique music-making style. The foes will decry his tempo fine-tuning and overly expansive approach. The friends will cite exactly those same qualities as the strengths of this performance. I should say at once that I am amongst the friends, as are my two Fanfare colleagues in the Philadelphia area, Andrew Quint and Arthur Lintgen, both of whom have written passionately on the subject in these pages and elsewhere. Bernard Jacobson, formerly of both Philadelphia and Fanfare , has gone so far as to suggest that one of the reasons so many orchestra members do not like Eschenbach is that his penchant for conducting for the moment deprives them of a sense of safety. I quote from his MusicWeb International posting: "In my view, it is precisely this element of unpredictability that has produced great performances through the years, under such conductors as that supreme cliff-hanger Wilhelm Furtwängler."

This is not to imply that there is anything eccentric about this Tchaikovsky-playing. The sound is big and gorgeous, and remarkably like what one hears at about mid-orchestra seating in Verizon Hall, where this was recorded in concert. Eschenbach is never afraid of giving his listeners a look under the hood; there is a lucidity here that is remarkable, reminiscent of the similarly daring way that Riccardo Muti conducted this music when he was in Philadelphia. By contrast, the Ormandy sound was much thicker, perhaps plusher, but musically less interesting. In other respects, Muti and Eschenbach are quite different. Muti delivered the music with a thrilling sense of urgency, where Eschenbach is more interested in pulling back enough to let the intrinsic shape of the symphony speak for itself. And if his rhythmic inflections, the pulse as he calls it, puts the musicians on a sort of tightrope, it does not show. The instrumental playing is consistently spectacular, if never showy. In terms of the actual performance, the beautiful recorded sound, and the warmth of the interpretation, this recording belongs on the short list of the many versions available, including those of Mravinsky, Muti, and a personal favorite, Beecham.

Eschenbach's piano-playing has always been characterized by precision and intelligence, as well as glistening tonality. Apparently he has still been practicing even as conducting has come to dominate his professional activities, as this completion of the cycle The Seasons (it really should be called "the months") makes it among the finest in the catalog, although you do have to buy two CDs to have all 12 months.

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