FringeReview UK 2018
BBC Prom 66 Paul Dukas’s Peri, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C with Yuja Wang as soloist, Franz Schmidt Symphony No. 4 Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, Wang RAH September 1st 2018
BBC Prom 66 was – with the Berlin Philharmonic under Kirill Petrenko – at least as adventurous as anything Simon Rattle brought across with this band.
Paul Dukas’s Peri is usually known by just the Fanfare (the one that inspired al the other French and others); more predictably Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C with the rapturously unpredictable Yuja Wang; then the prize recalling the Vienna Phil’s Franz Schmidt Symphony No. 2 in 2015 (with Brahms 3). This time Schmidt’s masterpiece his Symphony No. 4 championed by the Berlin Philharmonic.
Even this work from 1912-13 only just made it at the behest of friends. The fiercely self-critical Dukas only preserved two pieces after this one in the last 24 years of his life; one was piano lament for Debussy.
Debussy and Dukas were lifelong friends and championed each other. And Dukas cared for Debussy as the latter lay dying. So when the Dukas brayed aesthetically with those high horns and winds sliding into a piece that begins pianissimo rather like the composer’s Scherzo: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice of 1897, some chords out of La Mer aren’t wholly unexpected; but it was two way. Dukas is here a far more advanced composer than his early Symphony, Scherzo or even Piano Sonata.
The atmosphere’s very different to the Sorcerer, and indeed Dukas reinvents himself with a different sound-world in his few surviving pieces. The Schola Cantorum French Franck style of his Symphony in C, masterfully big-boned Piano Sonata of 1900, the more intricate 1903 Rameau Variations for piano.
The Peri deploys four themes, the third cello-and-horn one lengthening and plunging gently through a diaphanous atmosphere as the Peri or Fairy (Schuman invoked them same myths) falls asleep with a flower in her hand. Isander, or Alexander plucks it, she jumps up shocked, dances seductively to get it back, which she duly does. As reward Isander is informed of his imminent death which he accepts. Don’t go plucking at your fate.
To this slight scenario we’re treated to almost a set of gossamer variations that remind one of d’Indy’s Istar, but unlike that blaze of affirmation and naked theme, this ends with a languorous acceptance of death and a thematic dying away.
Yuja Wang doesn’t so much as bestride this colossus of workhorses: she takes Prokofiev’s very physical imagination seriously. Wang suggests Prokofiev as a rather singular virtuoso knew the way the hands contort on the piano, frequently very strangely indeed in this piece. She’s rightly convinced the circus jinks and performative act is one and duly delivers a astonishing spectacle, throwing herself over the piano, a mixture of laughter and unforgettable abandon. More importantly she makes the piano sound everything of this, with sharp, individual playing from winds in particular and the deep-banked strings and orchestral sonorities backing every glissandi and delicate shading. And Wang’s splintering octaves never hold an ounce back.
Wang’s not always delicate but soon shades into what’s required and then reinvents the sound in a high-powered, tensile-maxed workout, where she ensures her body weight is directed at every octave and where needed, held back. It’s a wild performance, happily not as even as a row of teeth, the keys very occasionally not sounding that way though struck, then making you wonder if you’ve ever heard this work properly.
The first movement gota rond of applause, as zingy and powered as all the great performances. The second started slightly les shaded than normal, but soon settled into its wild variations delicate and riotous. the third movement after its blustering intro proves the most magical of all in the reflective middle section where Prokofiev’ melting lyricism caress the utmost of his lyricism. This dreamy fairy-tale return to the world inhabited in part in both previous movements is often overlooked in favour of the skeltering coda. But it’s hypnotic here.
As encore Wang played the fastest Rachmaninov Prelude Op 23/5 in g minor alla marcia I’ve ever heard but never too fat – superbly idiomatic after the Prokofiev; and then… Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turka, but… it’s Fazil Say’s famous jazzing of this piece allowing Wang to combine classical delicacy for about five seconds until she blasts us into a word Prokofiev would have smiled – no, boggled at. Arcady Volodos had a hand in it too. If anything this coruscating joke involving rag-time jazz and post-modernist jokes was more virtuosic than anything in the concerto. A stunning brace of encores.
The Schmidt though is the prize tonight. Three-quarters Hungarian, and born in Bratislava in 1874, the year of Suk, Schoenberg, Holst and Ives, he’s more conservative than any, but – with the exception of Suk – more lyrically gifted too. Godowsky rated him as second only to himself as a pianist. But his job was as an exceptional principal cellist at the Vienna opera (and Philharmonic) orchestra under Mahler with whom he fell out. He found favour in German-speaking lands but like his teacher Bruckner for many years, didn’t export: that’s certainly our loss. His sound-world is inflected by Wagner, Strauss, Reger but sounds like no-one else.
Written in 1932-33 in response to the death of his fourteen-year-old daughter and his own heart condition, this is Schmidt’s masterpiece – though the other greatest works were to follow. including three piano quintets for Paul Wittgenstein, piano pieces, and The Book of the Seven seals. Its’ that piece, taken up by the Nazis though Schmidt was cheerfully extolling his Jewish pupil Boris Blacher, or Mendelssohn to the bone-headed Nazi composition students at the same time (they were dumbfounded) Schmidt’s had bad press. He deliberately didn’t finish his enforced commission of a Nazi cantata dying in protest perhaps in February 1939 at 64.
This devastating work – one of the last great Austro-German symphonies (Korngold and Hartman were to follow) both looks back and forward to death on an horn call in C minor. Schmidt himself playing his cornet in the ice cold as a boy, and his own and daughter’s demise in similarly icy fashion envelops this work, but the transformation is complete. There’s an interweaving quality, cited as evidence of his organ-composer’s mode of symphonic thinking.
The marvellous string themes arising in the first movement, saturated with memorable late romanticism and quite unforgettable succeed each other in a bleak, perhaps angry consolation. The rise and fall and then plushly melting theme are like nothing in ay composer and yet sound central to the 20th century. The adagio builds with a pause to what seems a more consolatory climax than the shattering of themes in the first movement but we’re plunged into a paroxysm of grief where all figures are stilled. It’s a desperate cry from which the scherzo vaunts and jaunts its way with the version of that opening theme becoming more all marcia till it’s undermined by two main themes re-emerging and like the adagio, overwhelming the language of speed with a sudden crunch.
The finale’s like a reprise and indeed quotes the opening, but here the horns supported and though there’s ore conflict the harmonies seem less bleak. still it’s the horn that has the final say, and if there is a redemptive shudder in the horn, it’s hardly heaven-storming. Heaven can wait. This will have to do.
Schmidt said it was like having one’s life pass before one in review, after intense beauty. There was a hush as the Berliners who plays this with a ripeness I’ve not heard in this work, lay everything to a hush. Time now to call this a masterpiece deserving of as much exposure as possible. It’s a revelation. No encores disturbed the vision.