Scintillating Schumann, Shame about the Salonen

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Brahms, Salonen, Schumann  Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich, Lionel Bringuier (conductor), Juho Pohjonen (piano), Tonhalle, Zurich  26.10.14 (JR)

Brahms:       Variations on a theme by Haydn (St Anthony Variations)
Salonen:      Piano Concerto
Schumann:   Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”)


Brahms’ “St. Anthony Variations” are nowadays not performed that often, and most welcome; apparently no one is sure whether the main theme was ever actually written by Haydn. Bringuier allowed the melodies to flow naturally; he is a refined and tasteful conductor, perhaps too much so for Brahms.  He did not interfere with phrasing or dynamics, letting this music speak form itself. He took the first Vivace movement a trifle fast which kept the flautists on their toes, and then the next Vivace a little too slow for my liking. The Presto had the celli under a little pressure but all came right in the grandiloquent Finale. I read in the programme that Brahms, whose name adorns the Tonhalle, had attended (and enjoyed) its opening night back in 1868.

Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote his half-hour long Piano Concerto some seven years ago, premiered in New York and dedicated to and played by Yefim Bronfman. He told Salonen the piano part was fiendishly difficult, although he seems to have had only a few weeks to get to grips with it. A few months later it was heard at the BBC Proms.

Salonen writes:

“I notice that the composers of today are once again writing music which does not try to offend potential listeners. I dislike audience surveys….but I think it is morally and intellectually rather questionable when a composer says he is absolutely disinterested in his audience”.

Well, that is shorthand for saying he writes approachable music, easy listening almost. Certainly his music has no elements of modernity, no discordances, no twelve-note serialism – but that does not mean it is automatically likeable.  His long-winded piano concerto evoked Messaien (bird sounds and oriental harmonies), Rachmaninov in the fully-blown Romantic passages, Gershwin in the jazzy syncopations, Bernstein in the riffs and Hollywood in various passages in-between. Salonen, as conductor, has been exposed to so many influences; he finds it difficult (and here I agree with a phalanx of critics) to evolve his own musical voice. Audiences seem to have been less demanding. When Salonen stopped conducting the work, his then assistant Lionel Bringuier took over and Bronfman’s replacement was then the very young Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen – the Los Angeles critic urged the Californians to see and hear Bringuier whilst they still could before he took over a major orchestra, which of course he has now done.

Pohjonen, now in his twenties, still has the awkward gait of a gawky teenager but once seated at the keyboard, he is calmness personified and mounts the obstacle course of the score without hesitation. His technique is spot on. I was charmed by his delicate encore and only wished I had heard more of the same.

Schumann’s wonderful, melodic “Third Symphony”, the “Rhenish”, was written in celebration of Schumann getting the job of Music Director in Düsseldorf in 1850. He wrote the symphony in a matter of weeks. The symphony bristles with dynamic energy and verve. Bringuier and the orchestra (particularly the horn section) relished the sweeping euphoric main theme of the first movement. More joy was to come in the shape of the Scherzo, the charming Ländler, then the sombre procession in Cologne Cathedral which Schumann had just visited (the massive Cathedral in Catholic Cologne had just been completed, Protestant Düsseldorf just up the Rhine has no equivalent). Finally, the bubbling Finale allowed the whole brass section to shine – the opening of the Coda apparently fascinated Mahler.

A few weeks ago, at Carnegie Hall, I heard the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle perform the very same work and I have to say I thought the Tonhalle performance with Bringuier a better and more enjoyable performance.

John Rhodes

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