Günther Herbig Conducts with a Master’s Touch and Authority

SingaporeSingapore Beethoven, Dohnányi: Martin Roscoe (piano), Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Günther Herbig (conductor), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore, 9.5.2014.  (RP)

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b
Dohnányi: Variations on a Nursery Song, for piano and orchestra, Op. 25
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67


Whether by design or happenstance, heroism in various manifestations was the theme of this Singapore Symphony concert. Leonore, the heroine of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, risks her life to rescue her husband, a political prisoner of a tyrannical regime. C minor, the key of the Fifth Symphony, is closely identified with the composer in his heroic persona. Ernő Dohnányi fled Hungary only in late 1944 as the Soviet army was advancing on Budapest. He also sired an undisputed hero: Hans von Dohnányi, implicated in plots to kill Hitler, was executed in the final days of World War II. The son was named by the State of Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for assisting Jews during the war. And then there is the conductor himself, Günther Herbig, who managed to emigrate to the United States from the former German Democratic Republic in 1983. That was no mean feat at the height of the Cold War.

The Singapore Symphony is a fine orchestra. My first impressions were that it seemed a collection of excellent parts that did not always coalesce into a unified musical force. This concert disapproved that notion. Perhaps it was the obvious rapport between the 82-year-old Herbig and the players, or maybe the discipline and experience that the conductor brought to bear, but the difference was astonishing. The brass played brilliantly, as is their custom, and the woodwinds were also a marvel. The string playing in the third movement of the symphony, however, was revelatory with their lush sound and precision. But it was not just the parts that impressed, it was the unified, cohesive whole whose sound at times seemed suspended in midair. This was music-making at the highest level.

Herbig’s Beethoven is heroic but always under control, and there was a sense of scale to both works. He crouched and lowered his hands as low as he could to get the orchestra to play pianissimo, and his efforts yielded a transparent and transcendent sound.The fortes were brilliant but within limits. Herbig knows the stylistic differences between a composer that straddled the Classical and Romantic eras and one who, although composing in the same tradition, came a century later. Instruments had evolved, the size of orchestras had grown, and then there were Wagner and a host of other influences brought to bear on Dohnányi that just were not in play during Beethoven’s time. Herbig made these stylistic differences real.

Dohnányi was not the first to compose variations on the French nursery song “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman.” The tune was relatively new when Mozart penned his well-known piano variations on it circa 1781. The 19th-century French composer, Adolfe Adam, also used it in his opera Le toréador. The opera is all but forgotten, but his variations still figure in the repertoire of coloratura sopranos. Dohnányi’s 1914 variations for piano and orchestra are of a completely different sort. This is a massive work for full orchestra and piano, but it’s full of wit and sheer joy in exploiting the simple melody, as are the others.

Martin Roscoe is a champion of Dohnányi’s music and has embarked on a project to record all of his piano works. Fine technique and musicianship coupled with his commitment to the music were obvious, but he is not afraid to have a bit of fun. Walking to the piano, he found his music was upside down, and the audience laughed as he put it right with aplomb. The Wagnerian-style introduction, complete with blaring brass and lush strings, ends with a bang. Roscoe, motionless and silent until then, jumped with a start to the delight of the audience. Then came the dawn: although the theme is heard in the introduction, Roscoe’s quiet playing of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” as the tune is  know to English-speaking audiences, brought a smile to everyone’s face. It was amusing, yes, but Herbig conducted a tight reading of the score in close collaboration with the soloist.

Roscoe rewarded the audience with Dohnányi’s Rhapsody in C Major, Op. 11, No. 3 as an encore, an earlier work that dates from 1903. If you like late Germanic romantic music with a Hungarian flare, this piece fits the bill. The audience obviously did, and they also appreciated Roscoe’s fine performance, recalling him to the stage three times for solo bows.

Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times recently wrote a piece entitled “Can You Hear Me Now? Turn That Thing Off!” that bemoans the spate of mobile phones ringing and ruining concerts in that city. Singapore has solved the problem, and it is simple: just block internet access in the concert hall. I wish performers and audience members the world over could raise magic wands and invoke the “Protego Horribilis” curse to stop this onslaught, in the style of a wizard in the final battle in the Harry Potter saga.  Magic, however, is not necessary, just a bit of heroism by managers of concert halls everywhere.

Rick Perdian

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