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Review: Christoph Eschenbach plays the piano at Disney Hall

May 27, 2009 |  3:30 pm

Eschenbach Before he became a conductor, Christoph Eschenbach was considered one of the finest pianists of his generation. But since he took up the baton in 1972, his solo appearances and recordings dwindled. Unlike Daniel Barenboim, his slightly younger conductor-pianist colleague, Eschenbach, 69, last performed a solo recital 31 years ago (in Munich).

Yet at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday, Eschenbach concluded a satisfying Dvorak chamber music concert, with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, by performing Schubert’s final Piano Sonata (D. 960 in B-flat Major).

Eschenbach used the score, turning pages himself. Suddenly this world-class conductor and inspired lieder and chamber accompanist looked very alone. Perhaps that’s what made his risk-taking account of the Schubert sonata so memorable. He took the work to its limit. In a mesmerizing 43 minutes (the work is often played by others in just over 30), he conveyed a fascinating, desolate landscape in the long first movement, then conjured a Zen-like atmosphere in the hypnotic Andante, a stunning high point.

Eschenbach once said, “The imagery of a performance, no less than its sound, is vital to its realization.” If that’s so, his way with Schubert’s time-suspending Andante suggested a gently rocking boat, but with Death’s hand doing the rocking. Somehow it was beautiful rather than creepy. 

In the last two movements, Eschenbach seemed to be channeling Schubert’s life-affirming determination to ward off the grim reaper (the composer died weeks after completing the score). He was a bit ragged in the Allegro finale and brilliant coda, but no matter. Few interpretations bring us so close to this composer.

The concert began with Eschenbach at the keyboard in Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A major. It was a confident reading marked by carefully calibrated extremes in tempo and volume, from hushed to exuberant, with the lovely Andante stretched for maximum poetic effect. While understandably not as unified as a long-standing quartet, the Philharmonic ensemble — violinists Martin Chalifour and Johnny Lee, violist Carrie Dennis and cellist Peter Stumpf — acquitted themselves admirably, their music-making by turns delicate, tender and joyous.

After intermission, and before Eschenbach’s Schubert, Philharmonic violinist Mark Kashper and Kanae Matsumoto, on piano, offered Dvorak’s Four Romantic Pieces. The best was the inward final Larghetto, the players catching its lyric and harmonic flights with poise.

-- Rick Schultz

Photo: Christoph Eschenbach with violinists Martin Chalifour, Johnny Lee. Credit: Axel Koester / For the Times.

More on Eschenbach:

Christoph Eschenbach, the cosmopolitan maestro

Review: Christoph Eschenbach conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic