Diverdi Magazine

October 2007

"The position of the conductor is nowadays more regressive rather than progressive"

By Mark Wiggins

Christoph Eschenbach has been in Spain over the summer months at the helm of the Orchestre de Paris as part of a busy touring schedule visiting the music festivals in both Granada and San Sebastián. Originally Eschenbach rose to fame as a concert pianist, enjoying a substantial career performing the standard repertoire as well as contemporary music, but notably excelling in Mozart. It was no misjudgement to find that he was accorded a volume in Philips's Great Pianists of the 20th Century series at the start of this decade. Further on in his piano-playing career (and he had begun winning serious competitions at the age of 11), Eschenbach also became a much-respected accompanist, recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schreier and later on with Renée Fleming and Matthias Goerne.

The conducting activities of Christoph Eschenbach, which now occupy most of his musical time, did not begin in earnest until 1972 around which time he was receiving substantial guidance from the Hungarian maestro George Szell. Eschenbach counts also with the mentoring activities over 25 years of Herbert von Karajan. Since then his principal conducting posts have been with the Zurich Tonhalle, the Houston Symphony, the NDR Sinfonieorchester and more recently as the Music Director of The Philadelphia Orchestra since 2003 and the Orchestre de Paris since 2000. A man of forthright views both on and off the stage it is neither a surprise that some in Philadelphia and Paris might have been finding his approach too exacting for them, nor that the apparent rift with the American orchestra of earlier this summer is seeing his original five-year tenure extended for a further two seasons as a principal guest conductor. Either way, Eschenbach has many plans ahead with both these orchestras - and quite a few others as well - which will be a source of future satisfaction to his numerous fans. That forthrightness of Eschenbach is clearly an asset in his own guiding and mentoring of younger artists, most recently the young Chinese pianist Lang Lang, himself a regular visitor to Spain in recent years.

Eschenbach has long been committed to the performance of contemporary music and recent recordings have included music by Luciano Berio, Pascal Dusapin and Marc-André Dalbavie. In the field of opera he is currently looking ahead to 2010 when he plans to direct Lear by Aribert Reimann in the Staatsoper in Berlin (and it was only as recently as the 2005/6 season that he conducted a Wagner Ring Cycle in Paris with staging by Robert Wilson). An additional level of commitment has come through in dedicating a trio of discs to the music of the turn of the underconsidered 20th century French composer Albert Roussel. With the First, Second and Fourth Symphonies already released on Ondine, the third disc will contain the Third as well as the ballet-pantomime score Le Festin de l'araignée.

M.W.: What lies behind your recent idea of championing the music of a composer who remains underrated, the Frenchman Albert Roussel?
C.E.: I suspect that the reason why Roussel has been a bit underrated is that he tends to be somewhat erratic and it is difficult to place his compositional style. You cannot say that his music is French impressionism or expressionism. Rather it is in between the two, I would say, and his is a very, very personal language. As an interpreter what I find most exciting about his music is its individuality as well as its quality. He doesn't copy anybody or anything. It is a huge pleasure to perform the four symphonies and the beautiful ballets like Le Festin de l'araignée or Bacchus et Ariane. In my opinion these really are masterpieces. Previously, I had known the Third and Fourth Symphonies and those two ballets but the First and Second Symphonies were real discoveries for me. I find the Second a most exciting work, especially in the way that it is already evoking late Shostakovich. It must have been really very avant-garde music when it was first performed in 1922. Beyond those orchestral works I am particularly taken by the opera Padmâvatî which I believe is a real masterpiece. We were almost going to perform it in the Theâtre du Châtelet in Paris next year but it didn't work out with the stage direction, so we turned it down. I will get it performed at some point because it is such a great piece and very rarely done.

M.W.: The past summer has seen you and the Orchestre de Paris very busy in Spain and with Spanish music. How were your experiences here?
C.E.: Certainly, the orchestra has been very happy to have been invited by the Festival Internacional de Música y Danza in Granada as well as at the Quincena Musical in San Sebastián and loves working in Spain. In Granada we performed in the Palacio de Carlos V which as a setting is both magical and unique. There we took the opportunity to play the arrangement of Albéniz's Iberia in the arrangement by Fernández Arbós, which I think is a very good one indeed. We were in Granada two years ago and played the Francisco Guerrero arrangement which I found less successful; it was rather awkward in its instrumentation and to my mind partly unplayable. The Fernández Arbós version on the other hand is beautiful. I love Iberia, anyway and have played some of the pieces on the piano. The orchestra enjoyed the Arbós arrangement tremendously. Spanish music - and Spanish-influenced music - continues to interest me a great deal, whether it is the de Falla, Ravel and Debussy scores that we played in Granada or Russian music that exudes a certain spirit of Spain, such as by Glinka or Rimsky-Korsakov.

M.W.: Yet contemporary music has been of great interest also to you for a long time. Do you feel that musicians such as yourself have a responsibility to programme contemporary music?
C.E.: Of course, and if you imagine that Beethoven hadn't been played in his own time and hadn't been supported by his own audience, then we wouldn't know Beethoven today. We - as musicians of our time - really have a great responsibility to promote the composers who live amongst us and reflect the times that we live in, expressing our problems and demonstrating in music everything which is contemporary in the best sense of the word (or the worst). Unfortunately, there is a trend in the music business to go the safe way as far as programming of concerts is concerned because people think that they can sell tickets better with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky than with Turnage and Pintscher but we, the performers, have to fight against this and provide contemporary music. The problem derives also from the role taken by the conductor -or, at least since the ‘invention' of the conductor in the middle of the 19th century. Until Hans van Bulow the composers themselves acted as conductors. Liszt conducted, as did Mendelssohn, Wagner, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert... After van Bulow's time the position of the conductor changed and became regressive rather than progressive and during the course of the 20th century it developed in way which I think has been quite negative. Now we have to fight against it and yet it is not that difficult. When I was with the NDR Sinfonieorchester in Hamburg I purposefully scheduled a New Year's Concert for the Millennium in 2000 with no less than seven world premičres in one evening. We worked on the programme for one month and the concert was five hours long and was completely sold out and nobody left! I must say that I regard that as the biggest success of my life!

M.W.: You have also been acting as a mentor over many years for younger artists. Is this something else that you feel that you need to do?
C.E.: I think that it is also a task for a conductor to be interested in young talents and to help them, because there is a further problem with the way that the music business is often run nowadays. Over the last twenty years or so concert managers have felt that putting younger artists on the rostrum does not make so much money, and that great names are needed instead. Consequently they neglect young and highly-talented performers. I became interested in the mentoring activity some 20-25 years ago with young artists of the time like Renée Fleming. Then she was not known at all and she sang with me many of her roles for the first time. I remember inviting and re-inviting her until she then became the star that she is today. Tzimon Barto was another such artist at that time who I tried to help. He has recently returned to the scene - and has done so with two marvellous records [Rameau "A Basket of Wild Strawberries" and Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit, Miroirs and Jeux d'eau - both for Ondine]. Since then I started taking more and more young people under my wing, and I still do. Lang Lang made his big splashing debut with me at the Ravinia Festival (in Highland Park, Illinois, USA) when he jumped in - at my asking - for André Watts. He since then has developed a fantastic career. Even now he comes to me every three months or so to work on new repertoire and he does the same thing with Daniel Barenboim. I think that this activity is so healthy and is also such a reward for us. The mentoring activity is not too far from my activities as a song recital accompanist - which goes back over long period of time. I still very much enjoy song recitals and have recently been back to the Ravinia and Schleswig-Holstein Festivals to perform with this marvellous new Austrian tenor, Nikolai Schukoff.

M.W.: What continues to interest you nowadays with recording?
C.E.: A lot! Firstly, I think that it is important for the orchestras. With the Orchestre de Paris, for example, I believe that it is highly relevant for it to be known in places where it rarely goes to (if at all), like Australia or Scandinavia or the United States, so that there they know what a quality orchestra it is. With the orchestra we will be recording all of Mahler's Symphonies from now until 2010 - and 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the composer's death - on DVD in collaboration with the French TV channel France 2. The idea for doing this came to me after the reopening concert of the Salle Pleyel in 2006. This was televised by a fantastic new-minded realisateur, a real genius, who has a new way of filming symphonic music. You sit in front of the screen watching the DVD and it is like a detective story! As a pianist, performing and recording still give me pleasure because playing the piano helps me stay close to the roots of music-making rather than me being ambitious for a solo career these days! I played The Seasons by Tchaikovsky for the two Ondine Symphonies CDs with The Philadelphia Orchestra. It wasn't just to fill up the CD and I have always wanted to play these pieces because they are so beautiful and they are hardly ever played these days. Further, I think that it is quite an interesting thought that the conductor of the Symphonies should be heard interpreting Tchaikovsky from both his orchestral and piano sides. The same goes with coupling Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony with gems like his Alexander Blok Romances, scored for voice and piano trio or Mahler's Sixth with the Piano Quartet.

Copyright © 2007 Diverdi Magazine