This concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra featured Jeremy Denk, one of several artistic partners currently with the SPCO, performing in three works. Two of them have a connection of sorts that spans nearly 150 years: the Märchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures) of Robert Schumann and György Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Sch. Despite its title and the purported inspiration (Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and Sleeping Beauty), the four Fairy Tale Pictures are hardly trifling pieces, and they don’t aim for mere virtuoso display either. The first movement of the set is a moody prelude with a sense of yearning, while the final movement is a kind of berceuse that’s pervaded by a sense of nostalgia. In between are two more lively movements. In tonight’s performance, SPCO violist Maiya Papach drew out the darker qualities inherent in Schumann’s score, while Denk’s piano was poignant yet never cloying.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra © Ash & James Photography (2015)
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
© Ash & James Photography (2015)

Contemporary Romanian-Hungarian composer Kurtág counts Schumann as one of his inspirations. In 1990 Kurtág created a piece that pays homage to Schumann through the various personalities that the composer himself “lived”: the ebullient Florestan, the introverted Eusebius, and the rational Master Raro. Two additional movements draw inspiration from poets ETA Hoffmann and Attila Jószef.

The abbreviated title Hommage a R. Sch. gives us a clue of the aphoristic qualities of the music. Indeed, none of the first four movements lasts more than one minute apiece, while the final movement is longer than all the other ones combined. Audience members could be forgiven for not hearing even a hint of Schumann in the piece, but there is no denying that the music makes a powerful statement even if it isn’t easily “accessible”.  Soloists Alexander Fiterstein on clarinet, Hyobi Sim on viola and Denk at the piano certainly gave the piece their all, including some very impressive virtuoso passages.

Sandwiched between the Schumann and Kurtág works was Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major, K.488. It is a genial work that exemplifies Mozart’s mature concerto style, while the scoring is interesting in that the piece calls for no oboes or timpani, but instead two clarinets, resulting in a mellower sound. In the opening Allegro, the interplay between pianist and orchestra seemed at times a tad “dashed off”, and certain passages didn’t quite breathe. The second movement, in the key of F sharp minor, was more effective as Denk and the musicians treated the siciliano-type rhythm with a special poignancy. The atmosphere changed dramatically for the final movement (Allegro assai), which the SPCO players turned into quite the romp, with spirited melodic phrases being tossed back and forth between the piano, strings and winds. The clarinet passages were especially winsome, and the movement ended as it began, in boisterous high spirits.

The final work on the program was Schubert’s Symphony no. 2 in B flat major, performed by the SPCO without a conductor. The symphony was completed in 1815 when the composer was still in his teens, but would have to wait more than a half-century to receive its first public performance. Although the Second has been championed by conductors as diverse as Karl Ristenpart, Lorin Maazel and even Sir Thomas Beecham, it isn’t often found on concert programs. That’s a pity, because hearing the symphony underscores the genius of this composer, who at 15 years old was producing music equal to or better than composers more than twice his age.

The SPCO’s presentation was a joy from beginning to end. Tempos in most of the movements were bracing – somewhat faster than I typically hear – but highly effective, especially with the accented dynamics of SPCO timpanist Matt Strauss. The Andante, with its theme and variations, was all grace and elegance, while the Menuetto that followed combined high spirits with razor-sharp precision playing (although the forward propulsion seemed to lag a little in the Trio section). The Presto finale was exciting and vivacious, making for an immensely satisfying conclusion to a concert that spoke in equal measure to the heart as well as the head.