Something on

Last night back to the SOH to hear the SSO.

The program had the catchy title on my ticket of “Romantic Pictures.” “Pictures” came from the Ravel-Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition which made up the second half. “Romantic” was a fair characterisation of the first half, which was Ingrid Fliter playing the Schumann Piano Concerto, preceded by Liszt: Tasso, Lament and Triumph.

Silly me, when I looked that up quickly before going to the concert I got it into my head that we were going to hear three short works by Liszt. In fact Tasso is one of the earliest of Liszt’s symphonic poems. It is something of a rarety: in my lifetime the SSO had previously played it only once, at a Prom concert conducted by John Hopkins, in 1973. On that statistic, I expect to be dead or confined to the palliative care facility when it next comes up.

Coming to the work cold, I was struck by how much of Liszt’s pianistic style came through in the orchestra work: I fancied I recognized an orchestral version of one particular trick he has, which is to set up a pedallistic blur from which a new theme emerges after the change of pedal, In Tasso I heard something like this effected by a kind of baton-change between different sections of the orchestra. Some of the orchestral colours, especially in the opening section, seemed almost proto-Wagnerian. There is some suggestion that this aspect of the “new music” owed much to Liszt’s associates, one of whom, Raff, asserted a claim to attribution for this aspect of Liszt’s symphonic poems as a collaborator rather than a mere assistant. That’s an old, old story, isn’t it?

I enjoyed the Lament more than the Triumph. Maybe that’s my disposition, but in addition, as things got jollier they felt more like the sort of music that Liszt could and did write by the yard. Still, I resolved to seek out and rehear the work before the end comes.

The Schumann concerto suffers from no such obscurity. It is one of my favourite piano concerti and I have even played it – I make no claims for that performance. Everyone else seemed to enjoy Ingrid Fliter’s performance a lot more than I did, which probably means I allowed my own preconceptions to get in the way of appreciating her approach. (I also wondered about the state of the piano.) Of course I still enjoyed it, and not simply because it is a great work. My favourite bits remain the famous hemiola in the second theme of last movement (PS kept counting in 2) and the other bit where it seems to skip a beat but which in fact is also another, in this case cadential, hemiola.

The Liszt draws on Goethe and Byron for the myth of Tasso, and takes its musical inspiration from a song said by Liszt to have been sung to him to a text from the first two lines of Tasso’s Gerusalem Liberata by a Venetian gondolier. This had first found a place in Liszt’s oeuvre as part of Venezia et Napoli. Those are reasonable “Romantic” credentials.

Schumann’s Romantic genealogy is different. It is a genealogy which seems to be underappreciated these days, in English speaking countries perhaps because its literary co-ordinates are less well-known to us. The concerto, written for Clara, has a certain small “r” romantic aspect of its own, which mingles with its big “R” poeticism. Ironically, the concerto is probably these days overshadowed by Grieg’s later A minor essay in the same form which Schumann’s obviously inspired.

The SSO has for some time been including details of Australian performance history in its program notes. Possibly with the assistance of NLA Trove, they have now cast their net back further. So not only did we learn that the Liszt was first performed in Sydney in 1883 in Liszt’s own two-piano version by Paulo Giorza and one of his students, but also that the first movement of the Schumann was first performed in Australia in Sydney in 1885 by Alice Charbonnet-Kellerman and an orchestra conducted by Leon Caron. Possibly the source for that is this advertisement (scroll down to about page 3). I’m surprised it was so late or that there isn’t an earlier performance in Melbourne that hasn’t been tracked down. Surely at least H H Richardson might have managed a two-piano version to take Laura Tweedle Rambotham’s constant playing of Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (in the film version at least of The Getting of Wisdom) to a higher and more consummated level?

The second half was Pictures. It was a cracking (or do I mean crackling?) performance. Paul Goodchild, the associate principal trumpet, had a very good night – there was only one bit (the poor Jew – a section in questionable taste in the tradition of Fagin, Shylock, Beckmesser and Mime) where I thought he could have been a little quieter, and that could have been conductor Pinchas Steinberg’s decision rather than Mr Goodchild’s. It’s not simply because I believe PG to be a fellow-resident of Dulwich Hill that I wonder whether the time has come for an appointment of joint principal trumpets, especially considering the substantial share of the heavy-lifting duties that he takes on.

This was a very popular program. Both the Schumannn and the Mussorgsky are crowd-pleasers. I was surprised or, rather, disappointed to see that so little effort had apparently been made to sell tickets in the choir and organ galleries, which were only sparsely populated.

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