[from ionarts.org & ClassicalWETA.org]
Where Christoph Eschenbach goes--Paris, Philadelphia, Hamburg, soon Washington--he brings along his record deal with Ondine. That's an asset from which the NSO should benefit handsomely, because the recordings (most of them, at least) are not just superbly played and interpreted, but they're even more imaginatively put together: chamber music next to large orchestra pieces, sometimes showcasing Eschenbach as a pianist, sometimes select musicians from his orchestra. Or his special friend, pianist Tzimon Barto, as he does on his latest disc--a studio recording with the North German RSO. The disc is all-Schumann, but with a program that reflects Eschenbach's willingness to turn his back on standard programming and let a little fantasy reign. The two "Introduction & Allegros" for piano and orchestra (opp.92 and 134) are--literally--joined by Schumann's "Ghost Variations" for solo piano.
I rarely cry listening to a CD. I did here, gladly, and without guilt for any of those tears. (Wolfgang Rihm told me since that the same thing happened to him, so I *really* don't feel guilty for those tears.) The Ghost Variations were written in the last, torn moments of Schumann's presence on the here-side of sanity, created under heart-wrenching circumstances of final lucid, intermittently hallucinatory hours. The Variations work perfectly as a slow movement and join the two Konzertstücke on either side to form a complete piano concerto. Barto plays them with muscular romanticism of someone who can relate to the light and dark of late Schumann... and wallow in both.
Bringing the disc to over 73 minutes playtime is another painfully gorgeous Schumann rarity, the Six Etudes in Canonic Form, op.56. If you haven't heard them, or heard of, them, it's probably because they were written for the pedal piano that was only very briefly en vogue. With the demise of that contraption (originally intended to ease practicing organ-playing at home by attaching pedals to an extant grand piano), those works written specifically for it sank into obscurity. Debussy caught a glimpse of these Etudes, though, and duly mesmerized (I imagine) transcribed them for two pianos. Eschenbach and Barto sit down to play them... and what a substantial little wonder they are to behold: The stringency of Bach infused with all the romantic essence of Echt-Schumann continues to leave me speechless every time I hear them. The whole album is clear contender for the "Best of 2010" list.