More views of – or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
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4 October (Proof corrected / end-note extended, 13 October)
Peter Donohoe had clearly not done anything as crude as ‘thinking out’ his approach to playing Schumann’s Piano Concerto (in A Minor, Op. 54), but he must know the piece from the inside out, and he could work with it, on the night, to bring out its and his very best (the latter through the former) :
-> Something remarkable's in concert repertory, as witness @PeterHDonohoe's work with Michael Sanderling and the DresdenerPhilharmonie— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) October 2, 2015
In all honesty, and not wishing to denigrate any specific piano soloists, it is rare to hear this concerto infused with such spark and feeling. (Those qualities, too, typified Michael Sanderling’s conductorship of Brahms’ last symphony*, in the second half of the concert.)
Robert Schumann (1810–1856) ~ Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54 :
1. Allegro affetuoso
2. Intermezzo : Andantino grazioso
3. Allegro vivace
In Schumann’s measured, but lyrically narrative, initial bars, one catches the Grieg concerto (his Opus 16, and also in A Minor). Schumann's concerto was completed barely more than twenty years earlier, and its (1) Allegro affetuoso feels distinctly a series of interludes – yet seamlessly so, as befits having first been a Fantasia (for piano and orchestra).
Very early, a deft trill introduces the theme’s being stated – and, as will emerge, the trill is used for a purpose, not as ornament. Here, there is grandeur, before the theme scales down with a decrescendo, and is quizzically given in a varied form : to which Peter Donohoe brought a singing, ‘placed’ quality, and thus carefully linked to a passage with clarinet and strings.
The poetry and the emotion were evident in scoring and playing, with such features as the ease with which, after Donohoe had been restrained in a short solo section, clarinet passed material to oboe, and Donohoe then took time before an outpouring in the piano voice. It felt unquenchable, but did abate – into a string ritardando, cantabile keyboard work, a clarinet passage, and light arpeggios, which, too, felt held back by Michael Sanderling.
Soloist, woodwind-players, strings, all demonstrated together the real felt emotion, there amongst lighter touches. We heard that, within the notes, Schumann has notes that need to flow, and that a burst from the piano can be experienced within the orchestra (not seeming external to it).
As with the finale, one feels driven inevitability, but that it is coupled with an easiness in using thematic material : the oboe is given a statement, but it is underpinned by brass and woodwind, then handed to the soloist to play with it – and, as Donohoe did, bring out its pianism. Then, just as soon, the pulse moves on : the effect being that our familiarity now, with the structure, allowed the use of underplaying as a way of making the string-effect that followed stronger.
One moment we can have aching engagement with a very Schumannesque subject ; the next, scales or arpeggios that feel more regimented. It is as if we are to glimpse beauty amongst the mundane, and so a formal cadenza can, ushered in by strings, become a tender interlude : those who know the solo piano works will identify a sense of the familiar mixed with the intense, and of pain, but yet also comfort, in outcries (even if they get cut off, by the structural outworking ?).
This is the moment when we realize that the use of trills actually comes across as very emotionally informed – and when, in the context of a pianistic outpouring, reintroducing the trill, and passing over to the woodwind, feels absolutely right in terms of the psyche.
Bass notes in the piano herald a brief coda, and we are led into the movement’s close.
Called an Intermezzo (and typically accounting for less than one-sixth of the length of a performance), the (2) Andantino grazioso may seem inconsequential when it opens, but this is far from the truth : as with many ‘a musical bridge’, it effects our transition to the mood at the close of the work. Breathing and living through the music, Donohoe brought us a moment of exceptional poise with the re-entry of the principal theme, and, not for the last time, some very quiet tones.
Further on, and despite Sanderling bringing up a full Viennese string-sound, we cannot pretend that there is not hurt to be felt here : the balance of the piano against the orchestra was impeccable, and the attentive stillness allowed Donohoe to be daringly pianissimo.
When a repeat came, it did so with the tiny suggestion that it might be perfunctorily attempting ‘to go through the motions’, since what was telling was the sensation that the rhythmicity was swaying a little, and, at the close, of the music wanting to hold back.
In the (3) Allegro vivace finale, both a sense of release and of relative ease, with, for example, a tutti statement, and Donohoe just playing quietly underneath it, but then moving, alongside the other players and through and with Sanderling, to bring out the chordal complexity.
Yet, although Schumann’s heroic sense of triumph may be heard, at one point, in a bold utterance, it dissolves, in the next, into the orchestra, or we enter a semi-questioning episode : the concerto seems to be seeking a different model of pianist / soloist, and one can see how Brahms must have had close regard to it (e.g. with what symphonic ambitions he had (before the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor) for what became his Piano Concerto No. 1 (in D Minor, Op. 15), first performed (by Brahms) in 1859).
Yes, we had Donohoe’s fists raised with the conclusion of a bold assertion, but one senses, now, that the piano is present more in the momentum (and not so much in the hurt or beauty within individual notes), as if Schumann’s writing is drawing rhythmically back and forth, in broader sweeps. Thus, a sense of outreach, and of opening out – although there is still ‘angularity’ in his choice of intervals when he leads up to the main theme, and then gives a feeling of tranquillity (and a sense of purpose – even destiny ?) in the harmonic resolution.
Right at the end, Schumann gives us dance-forms, the cadences of motion against the patterning of a finale. However, after a moment of quiet, timpani (which have been integrated into the concerto throughout) duly propel the concluding chords.
* This Tweet aims to amplify the comment :
-> The DresdenerPhilharmonie, under Michael Sanderling at @CambridgeCornEx, made this music flexible, and its rhythmicity full of figures— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) October 1, 2015
The fact is that one can hear Brahms played perfectly well, but one may also feel that the experience added relatively little other than (a) unamplified sound, (b) seeing the performers as they interact with each other and with their instruments, and (c) appreciating, at some level, that the totality of what one desired to hear is the result of the interaction at (b) :
Yet, at its least good, this can amount to little more than a fleeting consumer pleasure, i.e. knowing that these men, women and resources are here at the collective bidding of those who have paid the ticket-price (matters of effective concert-promotion apart)... ?
Against which, one might propose counterposing an alternative, the practice of actively engaging with the performance, rather than 'going to hear' a familiar piece of music – of listening agog, or with new ears, maybe as if one had to give an account of what was good or fresh in it to a friend who could not be there ?
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)