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)