[This was done for the Amazon website. I was a little nervous about taking so much of an important musician’s time, but he kept prolonging the conversation, thinking of more things he wanted to talk about. In the end I wound up with an editing problem but a good interview.]

Christoph Eschenbach is an adventurous musician. But when he decided to pay his bicentennial tribute to Franz Schubert, he didn’t expect to encounter a ghost. “I looked at a lot of possibilities to put the spotlight on Schubert apart from his own music–Schubert through the ears and eyes and hearts of others. I got the score of Berio’s Rendering and I was fascinated by it. I had seen a completion of the Tenth Symphony that wasn’t so great. Here I found a great composer taking these sketches and reflecting on them, in his own love for Schubert. Berio calls it a love letter to Schubert. The sequences where he reflects on Schubert’s music are very ghostlike and very spooky. It seems to me like a seance.” (It appears on Koch International Classics 7382, coupled with Joachim’s orchestration of Schubert’s Grand Duo.)

Eschenbach is a musician in flux. After a decade as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, having brought it to new prominence (including recordings and a European tour), he has just resigned his position and taken up another: music director of the Orchestre de Paris. And although a full-time conductor, he still maintains ties with his original career, as a concert pianist.

“It’s a question of organizing your time,” he says. “I don’t play when I know in advance that I don’t have enough time to prepare. I don’t play all year long, or one recital in December and another in April. Mostly I play chamber music, song recitals, and occasionally a concerto conducting from the keyboard. I can organize things well, and mostly I play in my own festivals like Ravinia [of which he is also music director], when I play just for fun with my colleagues.” As we spoke, he was preparing for a recital with Renee Fleming at the Paris Opera and another with Yo-Yo Ma in Houston. “I couldn’t stand to play unprepared,” he said. “It would drive me crazy.”

Eschenbach has long been a musical explorer. In the 1960’s, when he was playing the Second Piano Concerto by Hans Werner Henze, he was also making recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos, each with a different conductor. When Deutsche Grammophon asked him to record the Henze Concerto under the composer’s direction, he suggested that Henze also conduct his recording of the Beethoven Third Concerto. The result was a stimulating, provocative, and convincing performance.

His Houston recordings have also, for the most part, avoided the obvious. He is proud of his recorded legacy in Houston, especially, he says, Schoenberg’s Pelleas et Melisande (Koch International Classics 7316) and an album of Schonenberg’s transcriptions of Brahms and Bach (RCA Victor Red Seal 68658). The closest he has come to standard repertoire is a Mahler First Symphony (Koch 7405), a live performance souvenir of a European tour with the orchestra. Another sizzling concert performance brings Bruckner’s rarely-heard Second Symphony to life (Koch 7391).

Although Eschenbach will be leaving Houston, he still has projects there and will return for concerts. He is recording Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which we agree is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, with members of the Houston Symphony. With the whole orchestra and violinist Robert McDuffie he will record the Adams and Glass Violin Concertos for Telarc.

Eschenbach’s ambitions for the future are to continue with new repertoire, especially contemporary music. He is especially excited about a Millennium Concert with the Hamburg Radio Orchestra, scheduled for February 2 because “on the first everybody will be dead from celebrating.” This concert will include world premieres by seven composers: Wolfgahg Rihm, Matthias Pintscher, Aribert Reimann, Mark-Antony Turnage, Christopher Rouse, Bright Sheng, and Peter Ruzicka. Two months later in Hamburg he plans a mini-festival of Kurtag and Pintscher, and then a weekend of Ligeti including the world premiere of a new Horn Concerto. Will any of this music be issued on CD? Well, he says with some optimism, “I try to interest the companies.” –Leslie Gerber

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