Schumann’s “Ghost Concerto” Stops by Munich

GermanyGermany Schumann: Tzimon Barto (violin), Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Munich Philharmonic, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington, DC. 9.10.2011 (JFL)

Schumann: Introduction & Allegro appassionato op.92, Ghost Variations WoO 24, Introduction & Allegro op.134, Symphony No.4, op.120

When Christoph Eschenbach and Tzimon Barto came up with the idea to combine Schumann’s two single movement Introduction & Allegro pieces for piano and orchestra, joined by the haunting Geistervariationen as the slow middle movement, to a de-facto Piano Concerto, they hit upon a winner. The resulting recording was my highlight of 2010, and they’ve been successfully touring the program since. No wonder they keep repeating it wherever they go.

available at Amazon
R.Schumann, “Ghost Concerto” et al.,
T.Barto / C.Eschenbach / NDRSO

available at Amazon
R.Schumann, Symphonies 1-4,
C.Eschenbach / NDRSO

I have heard it in Hamburg in 2009, in Salzburg in 2010, and this January it was time for the Munich Philharmonic to play along. I’ve found the popular reception always positive, but the critical reception ranges from haughty dismissal to enthusiastic paeans, often after the same performance. True: the program isn’t as effective as it is on CD, and can stretch the listeners’ attention span with its prolonged soft and slow passages. But the rewards are enormous, too, especially Barto’s downright aggressive pianissimo, which is to say that even in as large a hall as the Gasteig Philharmonic Hall in he plays so deliberately softly that it forces the audience to stop coughing and listen. The resulting soft murmur of the op.92 Introduction & Allegro appassionato’s opening, with lovingly buzzing strings underneath, was particularly present on the second of three performances.

The “Ghost Variations” were similarly played; with Barto they are a spontaneous indulgence every time, with changing emphases of rubato, abbreviating ringing notes here, sustaining others there. On this occasion, melodic lines in some variations struck me as suffering from this approach, but the softness of touch and the true pianissimos are very welcome. Not just because they’ve become relative rarities in the concert hall, but also because Tzimon Barto is a pianist I find more interesting the softer he plays—from indifference above f to wholesale admiration when he reaches ppp.

Amid beautifully plangent woodwinds the orchestra, as always getting better from night to night, was more determined than enthusiastic and not always together under Eschenbach’s loving, grand gestures. The audience demanded and got its encores: On the second night a Chopin Nocturne, on the third Schumann’s “Mignon”—both very much played in the same hushed style, superficially a good match, but—despite what I just said about loving his ppp—‘playing into their hands’, as it were.

There was a sense of liberated joyousness in the third night’s performance of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony: Happy and wild, energetic and carefree, with a surprisingly broad smile for the Symphony, and more convincing in character than execution. The third movement waddled and might have benefitted from a more tightly controlling hand, but the fourth returned with zest for an exciting finale, accompanied by unshackled blaring brass.

Jens F. Laurson