Passion, emotional honesty and courage: Dora Pejačević’s symphony at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 40 – Brahms, Pejačević: Martin Helmchen (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 14.8.2023. (CK)

Sakari Oramo conducts pianist Martin Helmchen and the BBC SO © BBC/Sisi Burn

Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major
Dora Pejačević – Symphony in F-sharp minor (Proms premiere)

It was good to hear Brahms’s mighty Piano Concerto No.2 at the Proms: and, for me, high time – I think the last time I heard it in concert Clifford Curzon was the pianist and Jascha Horenstein the conductor. I have not been deliberately avoiding it, though if I had been alive in Vienna 150 years ago, I would probably have supported the Wagner side of the controversy. When Martin Helmchen, the impressive and engaging soloist, was asked if he enjoyed playing the concerto, he hesitated, speaking of ‘the degree of suffering’ all pianists who perform it must go through. There is music of transparency and delicacy, for sure; but, said Helmchen, the pianist has to develop muscles for this piece alone – they are not needed even for Rachmaninov or Prokofiev. Perhaps this is what Alfred Brendel meant when he wrote – rather severely – of the concerto’s ‘unsurpassable pianistic perversions’.

The calm horn solo with which the concerto opens – gently reflected upon by the piano – gives no indication of the turbulence to follow; but it does provide structural hand-holds for the audience (and maybe the pianist) when it returns, first in the minor key, later in the major: beautiful passages both, the piano responding with delicately filigree playing. As for the rest, one listens in awe, swept along by pianistic thunder and ‘cataracts of trills’, in Sir Donald Tovey’s phrase. The Scherzo which Brahms inserted into the traditional concerto form brings no respite, demanding playing from the soloist which is emphatic, dramatic, even approaching the demonic.

The cello solo that opens the slow movement – unavoidably reminiscent of the oboe that performs the same function in the Violin Concerto – was finely played; it was a shame, though, that the orchestral layout made Jonathan Aasgaard invisible to most of the audience. Helmchen responded with playing of bell-like clarity; the passage where he duets with the two clarinets, before the return of the cello, was magical. And then the carefree melody that opens the finale flooded the hall with Carinthian sunshine: a playful mood prevailed, and even the piccolo had her moment in the sun. Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra proved excellent partners throughout – sympathetic, flexible, never stodgy. Helmchen rewarded us, and, perhaps, himself, with more Brahms – ‘not quite as long as the other one’ he wryly observed: the Intermezzo in A major from Op.118. A quiet reassertion, perhaps, of the Helmchen whose first love is chamber music.

Much as I enjoyed his performance, I was not at this concert for Brahms. In contrast with the above, I had been careful to avoid any contact with Dora Pejačević’s Symphony in F-sharp minor, wishing to meet it first in the concert hall. I had profited greatly, though, from Jessica Duchen’s excellent introduction to Pejačević in the Proms Guide; and from listening to Dame Sarah Connolly’s performance of some of her songs in Prom 33 (eclipsing, in my view, the songs by Alma Mahler that followed). Her friendship with Rilke; her response to the tragedy of the First World War, so much about her is fascinating: a life that in some ways parallels that of her admirable English contemporary Vera Brittain, and contrasts with her Viennese contemporary Alma Mahler (both of whom enjoyed a lifespan more than double Pejačević’s 37 years).

And so to the music. Would it prove a disappointment, I wondered, another belated fin-de-siècle also-ran?

Not a bit of it. Sakari Oramo: ‘I feel at home with this music. Very, very seldom does one encounter a composer that one has not heard about before, whose music just immediately talks to you. It is a magnificently colourful piece.’ I’m with Sakari. Within a minute I was hearing a new musical voice speaking to me. There was no question of listening out for influences (a touch of Elgar here, a hint of Mahler there, you know the sort of thing); the music has such energy, such afflatus that you are swept up and borne along on its currents. Passion, emotional honesty, courage – all these are abundantly there: a keen sense of drama and an unstoppable lyrical impulse. I am not going to attempt a detailed analysis (other than a mention of Ilid Jones’s cor anglais – introducing the slow movement as if feeling its way in the dark and ending it over sepulchral brass chords): I am still processing the symphony’s overall impact. It is tempting to describe its trajectory as per ardua ad astra, except that the blazing ending is resolutely in the minor key: defiance rather than triumph. It is worth saying that the orchestra is large – roughly equivalent to the one Mahler uses in his Fifth Symphony: the seventeen brass players were used to heroic and thrilling effect.

Sakari Oramo and the score for Dora Pejačević’s Symphony in F-sharp minor © BBC/Sisi Burn

At the end Oramo held the score aloft. His conducting and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s playing confirmed their absolute belief in the piece. When I first encountered Mahler’s First Symphony in Bristol as a teenager, my excitement was enhanced by the feeling that I had found an entirely new musical landscape to explore: here, the symphony had no successors. Would her music have remained tonal, like Zemlinsky’s, or would she have adapted to the radical changes of the young twentieth century? I will explore the music that we have –  and there is, apparently, a good deal of it – and I will treasure the memory of this Prom premiere.

Chris Kettle

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