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Classical Album of the Week: 'Piano Lessons' From Christoph Eschenbach

Piano Lessons

September 6, 2021. Just as student athletes watch Olympians’ moves for inspiration, student pianists benefit from listening to a pro’s interpretation of the pieces they’re learning. In Piano Lessons, the famed pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach traverses the repertoire that forms the backbone of many a piano student’s development, from beginner to early-advanced in this new 16-CD set from Deutsche Grammophon.

Eschenbach, who was music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra from 2003-2008, began his career as an acclaimed pianist, specializing in Classical-era and Romantic repertoire. Piano Lessons is a compilation of recordings Eschenbach made during the 1960s and ‘70s, before his first conducting appointment in 1981 as principal guest conductor of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra.

Technique is addressed in 4 CDs devoted to finger exercises and studies. We hear Eschenbach breeze through Ferdinand Beyer’s Vorschule im Klavierspiel, Czerny’s Etudes and School of Velocity, and Friedrich Burgmuller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Exercises, which have descriptive titles such as “The Harmony of the Angels.”

Moving beyond sheer technique, the music of J.S. Bach presents a challenge for students which can’t be faked. In playing Bach, a student must learn how to play a musical line with the right hand while the left hand plays an equally important, but complementary line—in other words, s/he learns to play what’s known as counterpoint. J.S. Bach had this in mind when he compiled the pieces that form the Little Notebooks for his family members, son Wilhelm Friedemann and wife Anna Magdalena.

The level of difficulty progresses with J.S. Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias that he wrote for his children and students to master.

Eschenbach plays select pieces from both of J.S. Bach’s Notebooks and the complete 15 Inventions and 15 Sinfonias with clarity, sensitivity and elan.

Only one of the Inventions sounds a bit out-of-place in Eschenbach’s interpretation. He takes an unusually deliberate, almost pedantic, tempo in the Invention in F minor. This is a characteristic of Eschenbach’s music-making that extends, at times, to his conducting. As in the Bach Invention mentioned, he indulges in an inordinately slow tempo in the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 49 No. 1 in G minor (the first of the 2 “Leichte” or “easy” sonatas.) Likewise, the dramatic opening “Grave” of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata is almost painfully drawn out. Fortunately, he brings plenty of fire and speed to the fast “Allegro di molto e con brio” that follows. And there is no question that the final movement of his “Moonlight” Sonata performance equals the brilliance and excitement of any other pianist’s.

Two CDs contain the Clementi and Kuhlau Sonatinas that prepare a student for the demands of Haydn’s and Mozart’s Sonatas. Eschenbach plays nine well-known Mozart Sonatas with charm, style and finesse, including the beloved Sonata in C Major, “Facile.” To his selection of eight Sonatas by Haydn, Eschenbach brings a sly sense of humor in his placement of accents and in his conversational phrasing, dispatched with the timing of a superb comic.

Throughout the album, Eschenbach’s touch produces a compelling piano tone that engages the listener. This is brought to beautiful light in the final 2 CDs of the set, devoted to Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. From the popular “Venetian Gondola Songs” to the final work in the set, “Belief,” Eschenbach makes the keys sing, showing students of all ages how a piano is capable of expressing as much emotion as the human voice.

As an added bonus to this satisfying collection, students who are truly serious about improving their art can sign up for the Tomplay app, which pairs the sheet music of every piece in the set with Eschenbach’s performances, in real time.

And then, of course, they must sit down—and practice, practice, practice!

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.