Proms 2006 – Christoph Eschenbach

Written by: Colin Anderson

Conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach has already made two appearances at this year’s Proms, with Orchestre de Paris, a concert performance of Wagner’s Siegfried and chamber music at Cadogan Hall. Gently spoken, and dryly humorous, Eschenbach speaks of the latter as “the sorbet on the menu! I love to make chamber music, and all orchestra-music is give-and-take. Even in the biggest works there’s a lot of chamber music, I want to have transparent scores; it’s my aim to always be transparent.”

Eschenbach is back at the Proms for two further concerts, this time with The Philadelphia Orchestra, and both include Beethoven symphonies. “I could talk for ages about them! Everybody has to find a personal approach to Beethoven – the right approach – and I think I begin to find it, finally, which is giving a natural amalgam of your own blood and the blood of the composer. If you don’t do them right, Beethoven’s symphonies will react back; and I have spent many years with those monsters reacting back, and finally they don’t anymore – so I have found my way.”

On September 4 (at 7 o’clock) is the famous 5th. “Mine is one of the shortest versions; very fast and relentless!” He doesn’t see the famous opening motto as a separate rhetorical statement; rather “the four notes are the cell of the piece. It has to move on, move on, and the finale needs a lot of energy but no pompousness.” It’s a symphony dealing with fate? “Not really! Fate is in everything. The idea of it being from dark to triumph is valid, although the dark of the Beethoven is aggressive. The Fifth is so violent; if people tell me they have enjoyed it – that is not a good listener!”

The Philadelphia Orchestra has a reputation (certainly in Eugene Ormandy’s day) for being one of the most refulgent-sounding of ensembles. “Right, but the fast tempi give a slimmer sound; it shouldn’t be a romantic sound for Beethoven; it’s very edged, even in the Ninth.” It’s the Choral Symphony that’s in the first Prom (September 3 at 6.30) with Hérodiade-Fragmente (setting Mallarmé) by Matthias Pintscher. “He is one of the great young composers. This is a fantastic piece of drama for the concert stage and we have a fantastic soprano singing it who really projects this drama.”

With Beethoven 5 is Tchaikovsky 5. “Not as romantic as you point out” (Mine was a cliché-ridden outline of Tchaikovsky’s music!) “Yes the slow movement of the Fifth is a very big painting of the soul and the Waltz is nostalgic. But the outer movements are rather Beethovenish, also relentless. He travelled a lot and was very informed about literature, and not only Russian, and that reflects in his music. I defend his sophistication and he was a superb orchestrator.” (Do seek out Eschenbach’s Philadelphia recording of Tchaikovsky 5 on Ondine, a burgeoning catalogue, with Mahler 6 up next.)

As for Eschenbach’s continuing plans in Philadelphia, “I am a champion of new music and I want to keep the flexibility of repertoire.” Fresh from a Beethoven cycle there, he says that “we also confronted the audience with new pieces, and it reveals to the ear how revolutionary Beethoven was; he is not so far from the new composers.” Eschenbach’s current contract in Paris is until 2010, and the year before in Philadelphia: “We are already in negotiations!”

  • Proms 2006
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 31 August 2006 and is reproduced here with permission

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