There was nothing even remotely out of the ordinary in the repertoire chosen for this concert by the Minnesota Orchestra and its guest conductor Markus Stenz. Indeed, it could have easily been a program from a century ago, devoted as it was to the meat and potatoes of the Austro-German repertoire: Wagner, Liszt and Schumann. That being said, there was a refreshing freshness in how all three pieces were presented.

Markus Stenz
© Molina Visuals

Opening the program was Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. It may well be the most personal of the composer’s creations, being created as a gift to his wife Cosima at the birth of their son, Siegfried (hence the piece’s name). Tonight’s performance may have involved triple the 15 musicians assembled on the grand staircase of Wagner’s home to play the première, but it came across as just as intimate as that performance must have sounded. From the outset, Stenz emphasized poetry and poignancy, with the strings possessing a chamber music-like quality. Ensemble was finely controlled and woodwind passages were exquisitely done.  Several ragged horn entrances didn’t detract from the magical atmosphere.

Canadian pianist Louis Lortie joined the orchestra in presenting the Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat Major by Liszt. The concerto had a long gestation period, being sketched out as early as 1830 but not completed until a quarter-century later. Liszt’s finished concerto is definitely the product of the Romantic age – not just in heart-on-sleeve emotionalism but also in its form which, although consisting of four movements, doesn’t particularly follow convention; the piece comes across as more of a fantasy for piano and orchestra.

Certainly the concerto benefits greatly from a flashy performance, which is exactly what Lortie and the Minneapolis players delivered. The pianist tore into the first flurry of chords and octaves, with the orchestra responding in kind. Lortie delivered a “big” piano sound – the most forceful I can recall ever hearing at Orchestra Hall. And yet the quieter rhapsodic musings, of which there are many in this concerto, provided delicate contrast. In all, it was a very special performance that proved how satisfying this concerto can be when presented by consummate musical artists of this caliber. Amusingly, the conductor gave the triangle player, who had a prominent role in the third movement of the concerto, his own bow at the end of the performance. The only disappointment (considering the short length of the concerto) was that Lortie failed to present the encore that the audience was hoping to hear. Hearing a Debussy encore during the composer’s anniversary year would have been icing on the cake.

Following the intermission was a presentation of the Symphony no. 2 in C Major, Op.61 by Schumann. It’s performed less frequently than the composer’s “Spring” and “Rhenish” symphonies, and yet it’s every bit as musically inventive. Some critics have complained about Schumann’s supposed deficiencies in orchestration, and there have been attempts over time to fiddle with Schumann's scores to “improve” on their effectiveness. Others, including the conductors Leonard Bernstein and Paul Paray, have been staunch defenders of Schumann’s original scoring. (Paray, attending a concert where one of Schumann’s symphonies had been presented using a doctored score, reportedly said to the conductor afterwards, “Nice piece. Who wrote it?”)

For this reason, there’s always a bit of anticipation going in, wondering what the audience is actually going to hear. As it turned out, Maestro Stenz adhered to Schumann’s own scoring, and in his capable hands the results were as clear and crystalline as they could be. In the opening movement, the “call to order” of the brass was masterfully executed. Following this stately introduction, Stenz launched into the sometimes-fraught Allegro section, with the musical ideas being tossed from strings to woodwind and brass. Balances were clear and ensemble tight, making for tremendous excitement – and spontaneous audience applause at its conclusion.

In the Scherzo movement, Schumann’s fleet-footed notes can come across as foursquare in the hands of the wrong interpreters. Happily that was not the case tonight, with the conductor coaxing exhilarating playing from the musicians. Several tempo slowdowns might have come across as a bit mannered, but thankfully those didn’t detract from the music’s forward propulsion.

The atmosphere changed markedly for the Adagio. Conductor Stenz dealt effectively with Schumann’s more rhetorical passages, keeping interest high all the way through this movement; the strings in particular were poetic in the way they held the sustained phrases that are so important to its character. The exhilarating finale delivered high spirits along with an added measure of triumph. With such a committed and compelling performance by Stenz and the Minneapolis musicians, it’s easy to understand why so many music-lovers consider this symphony to be Schumann’s very best.