Gestures speak louder than words

Christoph Eschenbach conducts with an articulacy beyond the merely verbal. By Edward Seckerson

Christoph Eschenbach was no ordinary pianist. He is no ordinary conductor. Nor could you accurately describe him as a pianist-turned-conductor. Eschenbach was always a conductor at heart. He was 11 years old when he first saw Wilhelm Furtwangler in action. He was "flabbergasted" (his word). He remembers the programme: Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies and the Grosse Fugue. How could one man communicate such feeling to so many individuals? How could one man motivate so many individuals to play "like angels and devils together"? He needed to know.

He was well advanced as a pianist at the time. Something of a prodigy. But his foster parents were quick on the uptake. They gave him a violin. "If you want to be a conductor, you'd better start learning about the orchestra." So he did. Eventually he'd participate in chamber music evenings at home. His mother was a singer and he learnt about the voice, about breathing, about breathing life and shape into a phrase. He learnt what it meant to be songful. It was something he could share with other musicians. The conductor in him grew.

But the piano won out for a while. In 1962, he took first prize at the Munich International Competition. Three years later, he did it again at the Clara Haskil Competition in Lucerne. Suddenly he was the foremost pianist to have emerged from post-war Germany. But still the conductor in him grew. He keenly observed all those he worked with - the good, the bad, the great. His first record - Beethoven's First Piano Concerto - was with the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan. Start as you mean to go on.

Karajan. The name alone has an aura about it. A mystique. But not to Eschenbach: "There was no mystique. He was a very shy man. Very centred. Not many people entered his world. But for those of us who did, it was actually a surprisingly simple world. His musical priorities were very clear. He was a painterly sort of conductor. He did not believe in barlines. He had this kind of Apollonic attitude to music. As opposed to, say, a Dionysian figure like Bernstein." Eschenbach acknowledges that Karajan's part in what might be called "the sustaining culture" of post-Wagnerian interpretation made for some "dubious" Bach and "mushy" Mozart. But from Beethoven onwards... in the romantic repertoire...

If Karajan reinforced Eschenbach's conducting aspirations, George Szell released them. For Eschenbach, meeting Szell was the turning-point in his career. An invitation to travel with him, watch him, compare notes with him, couldn't have come at a better time. As teacher, as conductor, he was, says Eschenbach, "supremely articulate". Clarity, transparency, diction - these were his musical priorities. "He was a great delineator of scores. He would say, 'Why is a note written if it's not heard?' For him every note was to be heard."

Eschenbach is preaching to the converted. A performance of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony in which the timpani part was revealed as "thematic" for the first time in this writer's experience was only one of many small but illuminating Szellisms enjoyed at first hand. Incidentally, in choosing the word diction Eschenbach makes the point (and it's a point worth making) that articulation as the backbone of expression is not - as is sometimes implied these days - an invention of the period-instrument movement. It was just as much a priority for the old masters: they weren't all rhetoric and rubato. He cites Beecham's Haydn and Mozart. Case rested.

Eschenbach made his conducting debut in 1972, in Hamburg, with - and this is pure coincidence - a favourite Szell calling-card: Bruckner's Third Symphony. It was nothing if not a bold opening statement: "I suppose I wanted to prove something to myself. If I really was a conductor, I needed to express myself through the work of a great symphonist whom I loved, but who wrote nothing for the piano." Of course, expressing himself as a conductor - then, as now - meant being absolutely clear in his own mind how the piece should sound - right down to individual chords. Communicating that sound to an orchestra, making it convincing for them - that was another matter.

When we met, he was busily engaged in convincing the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony was on the stands. A rough and ready read- through was rapidly shaping into something. Eschenbach is an elegant, courteous, quietly spoken man of few, well-chosen words. A single word - "surprise" - is enough to intensify a modulation. Another - "release" - will free the phrasing, encouraging it to sing. And "diction" - always diction. His gestures are precise but highly emotive. Occasionally, he'll sing the phrasing he hears - the best kind of musical short-hand. But his voice offends him. As for the reasons for the notes, the musical subtext, the characterisation - he is not one for imagery and epigrams. "The performance must come from the players. One need not impose musical feelings through words. Besides, if you try to define music through words, it can easily become shallow. Better to do it through the music, through gesture, through attitude. If you define the attitude of a phrase well, then good musicians will fill it. Your task is to lead them there... sometimes they lead you. If someone offers me a beautiful phrasing in the oboe line, then I can build off that." What is it they say about the great ones? Nothing to prove, everything to realise.

In Houston, Texas, Eschenbach is the architect of a success story along the lines of Slatkin in Saint Louis and Rattle in Birmingham. In 1988 he was appointed music director of the Symphony. In seven years he's taken them from the doldrums back to where they once belonged (in the days of Stokowski, Barbirolli, Previn): the American first division. RCA have just bought into the Eschenbach/ Houston package. Always a good sign. So how did he do it? Well, he did and he didn't. It's true, he says, that an orchestra's sound will always reflect its conductor's priorities ("look at the Philadelphia of Ormandy's day compared to now; or the Berlin Philharmonic of Furtwangler, Karajan, Abbado - totally different").

"But that can only be achieved by encouraging, developing the musical individuality within an orchestra. So in the beginning it was necessary gently to strip away certain personnel whom it was felt were not contributing to the music-making of the whole. And I don't mean just from a technical standpoint. One of my goals is for the musicians to feel the music-making between themselves. Again, it's this feeling of a huge chamber group - that the fourth trumpet listens and plays as if he's on the back stand of the second violins. Now that I can rely on this level of music-making, I feel I can both nurture it and challenge it."

And when he's the "guest" at someone else's party, when he travels to London, as he does this week, to make music with two very different orchestras - the London Symphony and the Philharmonia? "It's different, but the principles are the same. A working rapport is something that happens quickly or not at all. It's an unspoken language. If you interrupt an orchestra, if you say something, anything, and it's not utterly interesting, then that's bad. An orchestra will 'read' you if you're any good. So if you can refine your gestures so an orchestra sees every nuance..."

Telepathy, body-language, eye contact... a musicality beyond words. If I might end at the beginning, to put all of the above into some kind of perspective - there was a time when Eschenbach spoke only through music. His real mother died giving birth to him. His real father, a distinguished German musicologist and outspoken opponent of the Nazi regime, was sent to certain death at the Russian front. His grandmother - his sole guardian - died while they were quarantined in a refugee camp. Christoph Ringmann, then five, was found by his second cousin, Wallydore Eschenbach. He gave him a home, and a new name. And music. For almost a year Christoph Eschenbach was mute, profoundly shocked by what he had seen and endured but did not, until later, understand. "I had to make music. I had to express myself. And I remember the relief - and the release." It's that word again. Only minutes before it had made all the difference in the world to a single phrase of music. Now I knew why.

n Eschenbach conducts the LSO in Bruckner (Symphony No 2) and Mozart (Piano Concerto No 23), Sun 31 March 3.30pm Barbican, London EC2 (0171- 638 8891) and the Philharmonia in Prokofiev (Classical Symphony), Tchaikovsky (Francesca da Rimini; Sleeping Beauty extracts, arr Stravinsky) and Schnittke (Violin Cto No 4, with Gidon Kremer), Tue 2 April 7.30pm RFH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Above the hat of the toy gibbon, artist Mark Roscoe included a ‘ghost of a bird’ and a hidden message
art
Arts and Entertainment
Alien: Resurrection, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder
film
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable