»The dazzling technique one quickly took for granted...the constant wonder was the extraordinary energy of his playing, the ability to shape every paragraph with total certainty, the unswerving focus...a complete artist« – The Guardian
Christoph Eschenbach has reason to be doubly pleased: as principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris since 1999, he has just made his first recording with the orchestra in the "new" Salle Pleyel, the acoustics of which have been transformed out of all recognition following several years of work, producing results that Eschenbach finds utterly seductive. Above all, however, he is delighted to be working there with Lang Lang, the pianist whose artistic breakthrough he initiated and who is now one of the performers with whom Eschenbach appears most often. On the programme is Beethoven, an old acquaintance of the Orchestre de Paris to the extent that it was this orchestra's forerunner - the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire - that helped to introduce Beethoven's works in France from 1828 onwards.
Christoph Eschenbach first met Lang Lang in 1999 at the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Eschenbach was then the festival's artistic director. Their meeting was intended to be no more than an audition for the young and as yet unknown Chinese pianist, who had only recently graduated from Beijing's Central Conservatory and who was still in Gary Graffman's class at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but in the event it turned into a veritable recital. "I was not supposed to play for him for more than 20 minutes," Lang Lang recalls. "But he kept asking me to play this or that piece by Haydn or Brahms, and from there we moved on to Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven." For his part, Eschenbach still wonders "how a boy who at the time was barely 17 could have had such a deep understanding not only of purely virtuosic works but of pieces such as the Brahms intermezzos. I was fascinated by his talent and still am. He's a complete musician, not only technically gifted, like many young artists from Asia, but above all immensely musical".
This impromptu recital laid the foundations for a close working relationship that has developed over the years into an unshakeable friendship. "In the end I was at the piano for two hours; Christoph had completely forgotten his rehearsal, so much so that when he opened the door of the room in which we'd been working, he stumbled upon the singers who'd been waiting outside for over an hour!" So impressed was Eschenbach by the young pianist's playing that he immediately introduced the young hopeful to the festival's executive director, Zarin Mehta.
But destiny dictated that the young virtuoso and the conductor who could already look back on a long career were not to part company so soon. Lang Lang takes up the story: "Two days later, I received a phone call from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, wanting to know if I was willing to stand in for the pianist André Watts, who had been taken ill." 48 hours later, his triumphant performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 proved merely the first of many musical encounters with Christoph Eschenbach. With the passage of time, the conductor has become more than just a musical partner but also the pianist's veritable mentor. It is a relationship that Eschenbach himself defines as follows: "Of course, we give concerts together, but our musical relationship goes beyond the concert platform. It is a true musical conversation of great profundity."
This profundity no doubt stems in part from the fact that this is not a simple partnership between a young concert artist and a conductor with many years' experience behind him. Rather, it is a relationship between two pianists. As Eschenbach explains, the two men regularly perform together at the piano: "Gary Graffman had no objections to Lang Lang's coming to see me every three months to work on his new repertoire with me. He continues to this day to do so. We meet regularly to play, discuss and share things together." It may be added that Eschenbach is keen to share his experience with other young and talented artists besides Lang Lang: one could cite the example of Julia Fischer or, at an earlier date, Tzimon Barto. "Why should I keep to myself all that I've learned? I too learned what I know from my elders - in 1964, for example, I recorded Beethoven's First Piano Concerto with Herbert von Karajan, who was one of my mentors at the start of my career." George Szell is another conductor who encouraged the young and exceptionally talented pianist at this early stage of a career that has seen him develop into one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation. "They taught me a lot," he concludes, "and it is my duty today to pass on this legacy to others."
Beethoven's works for the piano are an essential part of this process. Lang Lang had already worked with Eschenbach on the Fourth Piano Concerto long before it became one of their lucky pieces and one, moreover, that best reveals the degree of musical osmosis that exists between these two artists. The idea of recording the concerto together was bound to fill both of them with enthusiasm. "The more I listen to him," Eschenbach admits, "the more I am convinced that he was born to play Beethoven."
Mutatis mutandis, the enthusiasm that Lang Lang has been able to inspire not only in Christoph Eschenbach but also in his vast army of followers is bound to recall Beethoven's own brilliant beginnings as a concert pianist in Vienna. It was with his First Piano Concerto in Cmajor op. 15 - composed in fact after the Second Piano Concerto in Bflat major, which was published as his opus 19 - that the 24-year-old Beethoven first appeared before the Viennese public at a concert at the Burgtheater on 29 March 1795. From that moment on Viennese society could no longer ignore the young virtuoso composer. However sensational the power of the two outer movements may once have seemed, it is the slow movement that fascinates Lang Lang most of all: "Although it is still cast in a Classical form, this Largo is already Romantic in character," he affirms. This vision is shared by Eschenbach, for whom this movement "already looks forward to Chopin". Lang Lang feels particularly drawn to this Largo, the expressive intensity of which is not without its problems: "Beethoven often demands extreme precision and will not tolerate approximation. What's so great about Christoph is that he has a sense of true rubato and is able to handle it without disturbing the work's overall structure, giving me enough freedom and space to express myself without feeling straitjacketed."
The Fourth Piano Concerto in Gmajor was first played in public in Vienna on 22 December 1808, when it formed part of a mammoth programme that also included the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Choral Fantasia. "For 80% of my colleagues," says Lang Lang, the Gmajor Concerto is "the piano concerto, and I share that opinion." Whereas the First Piano Concerto had yet to break free from the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, the Fourth finds Beethoven inventing a novel form, not least by launching the work with an entry for the solo piano and with a performance marking of "dolce". "It is almost impossible for the soloist to find the degree of relaxation necessary to play this theme - you find yourself so alone and so powerless on the very threshold of the work," admits Lang Lang. And what is one to say of the slow movement, in which the piano seems to beg for mercy in the face of the orchestra's inflexible chords? "It is a veritable operatic scena, it is Orpheus who has descended into the Underworld in order to beg for Eurydice to be restored to him."
Orpheus will soon be reunited with his Eurydice and - contrary to the legend - they will never again be parted. This, at least, is what the final movement seems to tell us, a movement in which Lang Lang and Christoph Eschenbach join forces, responding to one another in a spirit of perfect harmony.
CD 7: Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15; Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, Op.15
1. - 1. Allegro con brio - [18:18]
2. - 2. Largo - [11:26]
3. - 3. Rondo (Allegro scherzando) [9:14]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
4. - 1. Allegro moderato - [19:12]
5. - 2. Andante con moto - [5:45]
6. - 3. Rondo (Vivace) - [10:20]
Lang Lang, Orchestre de Paris, Christoph Eschenbach