Music for two wives and a hero…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

May 14, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Wagner wrote a piece for his wife, Cosima. Bartok also wrote a piece for his wife, Ditta. Schoenberg, on the other hand, orchestrated a quartet already written by his hero, Brahms.

The mix went to make stimulating listening last night at the third of this year’s Sydney Symphony APT Master Series concerts.

Think Wagner and you’ll think of the endurance needed to survive hours of high-octane opera based on grandly ridiculous plots. But there is another side to Wagner: his modest output of straight orchestral music. He dashed off a symphony when he was 19 and later produced a few overtures, but his most popular non-operatic piece is Siegfried Idyll, an atypical contemplative work that reminds me of Delius.

Matthias Pintscher

Matthias Pintscher

It was written as a gift to his (second) wife Cosima who was awakened on her birthday by musicians playing the Idyll from the staircase of the Wagner home in Tribschen, near the Swiss border. To be expected, it is balming music, and distinguishes itself with two familiar themes that recall the Ring Cycle.

Although the SSO provided more players than those originally applied to Mrs Wagner’s emergence from slumber, it still amounted to a piece for chamber orchestra. In the SSO’s case, that left half the regular players having a cuppa downstairs.

What could have been pleasant enough sentimentality became a gem of gentleness, shaped artfully by German conductor (and composer) Matthias Pintscher. The sound was at all times cohesive, with some rich passages from the oboe and horns. From audience comments it won a lot of hearts.

After some major furniture re-arranging and the wheel-on of the gleaming Steinway piano we were ready to receive Bartok’s piano Concerto No. 3.

Peter Serkin

Peter Serkin

Tragedy surrounded this, the last piece of music written by Bela Bartok.

Dying from leukaemia, he had to leave the final bars to be translated from shorthand and finished by his friend Tibor Serly. The piece was written for his wife, a concert pianist, although not in Bartok’s league. For that reason it does not make the technical demands of the two piano concertos that preceded it. It is nevertheless a sparkling work and there are many fine recordings of it available.

It is perhaps unfair to compare recordings of any piano concerto with a live performance, especially in a big space like the Sydney Opera House, where the piano has to compete with a fully stocked symphony orchestra. That said, pianist Peter Serkin seldom projected the piano as a solo instrument. Although he covered the territory with skilful interpretation, it lacked the power and sparkle that is usually associated with Bartok. When the orchestra quietened down in the slow movement, Serkin conjured up some solo magic, but back into the hurly-burly of the final movement it was difficult to pick up the piano until the near the end when Bartok hands the soloist fistfuls of massive fortissimo chords to close his account.

I asked one of the regular concertgoers what he thought of Peter Serkin’s performance. “His father was a terrific pianist,’ came the reply, accompanied by a candid stare.

The final work in the programme is sometimes nicknamed Brahms’ fifth symphony. It could be taken for that, in three movements out of its four, anyway. It is unmistakably Brahms, but in this case an orchestration by Arnold Schoenberg of Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, Op 25.

Although something of a hybrid, this piece worked beautifully owing, in no small part, to the orchestral shaping of Matthias Pintscher. In my opinion, he is one of the best visiting conductors we’ve had in a long time.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

The opening bars immediately demonstrate the resolve of Schoenberg to see the orchestration through the compositional mind of Brahms. Schoenberg was quoted as saying in 1938 that he had “watched carefully all the laws which Brahms obeyed and not to violate any of those which are only known to musicians educated in his environment”. The result is a remarkable piece for orchestra that grows like a towering forest over the seeds of the quartet.

However, the Schoenberg orchestration is only strictly Brahmsian until the fourth movement when Arnold loses his cool and cuts loose with xylophone, glockenspiel and cymbals in a cartoonish dance passage. That sets the scene for upping the tempo and rhythms seemingly beyond Brahms’ preferences, but thankfully it doesn’t morph into Schoenberg.

Pintscher pushed the orchestra at a furious pace in this movement, which headed for an applause-cranking finish like the final starbursts of festival fireworks.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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