Marc-André Hamelin proves an outstanding champion of Reger’s Piano Concerto in Berlin

GermanyGermany Reger, Schumann: Marc-André Hamelin (pianist), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Marek Janowski (conductor), Livestreamed on Digital Concert Hall from the Philharmonie Berlin, 24.9.2022. (GT)

Marc-André Hamelin

Reger – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in F minor, Op.114

Schumann – Symphony No.3 in E flat major, Op.97 ‘Rhenish’

To perform one of the most neglected German piano concertos just a few weeks after the Busoni Piano Concerto shows how sophisticated the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra are. At other venues, it might have frightened their audiences, but here in Germany’s capital the audiences are as keen to hear unfamiliar music as anywhere. Max Reger (1873-1916) was born a year before Schoenberg, and more than any other German composer wrote in a style similar to the founder of atonalism – yet never quite embraced Schoenberg’s musical language. The latter expounded that Reger was a genius, while Reger himself wrote of himself: ’I can say with good conscience that of all living composers I am probably the one who is closest in touch with the great masters of our rich past.’

Dating from 1910, the Piano Concerto was premiered by Frieda Kwast-Hodapp at Leipzig before the year was out, and one critic wrote it is the ‘latest miscarriage of the Reger muse.’ To this day, regardless of the composer’s hopes, the Piano Concerto is rarely performed, yet, in every generation there appears a pianist who is technically equipped and inspired to become the concerto’s proselytiser. In the past, Rudolf Serkin was an outstanding interpreter – currently the Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin champions the Reger concerto both in the studio and concert hall.

The concerto opened (Allegro moderato) on the timpani and brass with a propitiously confident theme. It was immediately evident that Reger’s sumptuous orchestration is embraced in a polished chromatic harmony with swirling string sounds interspersed with the weighty chordal climaxes of the piano. The soloist unleashed a cascade of elaborate voicings against the emerging swooning melodies that steadily melded together and closed the lengthy first movement.

The slow movement (Largo) began with the Canadian generating some beautifully intimate harmonies using the entire range of the keyboard. It was captivating to hear Hamelin’s exquisite tonal palette as there emerged contributions from the flute of Emmanuel Pahud and the oboe of Albrecht Mayer, while there developed exchanges of ideas with a devastatingly melancholy one bringing the movement to a close.

The Allegro con spirito movement opened on the piano with an infectiously playful idea that expanded as the orchestra grasped the humorous yet almost childish musical ideas. Hamelin’s buoyant keyboard theme enthused the orchestra leading to a dazzling finale. As an encore, Hamelin played Robert Schumann’s Humoreske, Op.20, No.1 – a brilliantly enthralling and riotous piece making fun of musical convention.

Marek Janowski © Frederike van der Straeten

The first movement (Lebhaft) of Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony’s began with the opening theme heralding a glorious melody embroidered by the oboe of Mayer, and the flute of Pahud. The secondary idea was expanded with magnificent playing from the brass and strings, and after the reprise of the first theme, there emerged a splendid fff climax. Marek Janowski’s conducting is in the old-style and manner with his very correct movements – never exaggerated or exhibitionist – and a proven masterly conductor of the Austrian-German school. The Scherzo opened on the low strings with the idea heard on the bassoon of Daniele Damiano, Pahud’s flute, and Mayer’s oboe, and then by the violins with wonderful harmonies from the horns! The Ländler were marvellously expressed, and in the middle section, there was a somewhat melancholy passage of nostalgic beauty from the woodwind.

The third movement (Nicht schnell) opened on the clarinet of Wenzel Fuchs and Damiano on the bassoon in a passage of outstanding woodwind interplay, while in the fourth movement (Feierlich), the trombones and horns announced a noble theme, accompanied by the woodwind and strings before closing with a brass chorale of revered harmony. The finale (Lebhaft) opened on a joyful, happy idea expressed by splendid string playing, and most triumphantly with a brass chorale culminating victoriously and in celebratory mood. This was a remarkable concert led by a conductor who is a master of the Romantic repertoire and a noted interpreter of the less familiar pathways of modern music.

Gregor Tassie

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