One of the most admired, and simultaneously most controversial composers of 19th-century Europe takes out time from his self-imposed gargantuan task of writing a 16-hour long opera cycle, filled to the brim with loathsome greed and self-sacrificing love, heinous betrayal and feisty heroism in order to compose a 16-minute long birthday present for his wife: a serene chamber music work celebrating her and her newly born son, Siegfried, after whom this composition is named. Thus in 1870, Siegfried Idyll, Richard Wagner’s incomparable piece of music was created almost completely void of conflicts, ill will or sombre thoughts, in stunning contrast with all the turbulence and drama in his music elsewhere or, for that matter, in his life.

Peter Serkin © Touhey Serkin
Peter Serkin
© Touhey Serkin

This intimate musical love letter opened the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s concert, conducted with empathy and evident care by Matthias Pintscher. The German guest conductor allowed time for all the intricate details of the score to blossom. Some might have thought of this as an overly slow, even self-indulging pace but I wouldn’t agree. In this performance the audience was offered the opportunity to savour a remarkable range of soft dynamics, many delicate tempo changes following each other (there are at least six different markings for various slow tempo characters in the score), and an exclusive choice of motifs from the opera Siegfried (for once without their customary content as “Leitmotifs”) greeting the son by the same name. The unusually small team of SSO players, encouraged by their conductor to explore the subtleties of the Concert Hall’s acoustics, excelled as chamber musicians, with delicate woodwind solos and a lush and warm, yet never ostentatious sound from the strings.

The orchestra nearly doubled in size for the next item on the programme, the Piano Concerto no. 3 by Béla Bartók. With such an experienced conductor as Matthias Pintscher, this did not create a balance problem. The reason why at times Peter Serkin’s playing was hard to follow was the pianist’s overtly introverted concept of Bartók’s most accessible concerto. Paradoxically, this work of the dying and deeply homesick composer is one of his most explicitly affirmative compositions; yet its light-filled spirit did not entirely transpire from Serkin’s performance. It seemed like the result of a deliberate artistic decision that he toned down the twinkling gleam of the upper registers of his instrument consistently. The chorale of the Adagio religioso was filled with due pathos, but the same movement’s middle section felt lethargic rather than bursting with chirping bird calls. Upon the nostalgic farewell to that movement, the muscular energy in the solo piano part erupted in the introductory bars of the last movement, only to slow down considerably once the orchestra entered, taming the tempo, not to mention the excitement of the joyous finale. These and other musical solutions communicated Serkin’s unique view of the concerto which won my respect. Nonetheless, it seemed to me that while he spoke Bartók’s musical language fluently, the Hungarian accent wasn’t quite right.

According to an interview with Arnold Schoenberg, one of the reasons behind his extraordinary orchestration of the Piano Quartet in G minor by Johannes Brahms was his attempt to popularise a seldom performed chamber music work. Whether his version became more often played than the original is a moot question. Nor is the genre of this composition entirely certain. Anyone hoping to hear a hitherto undiscovered Brahms symphony in this orchestration would likely experience disappointment. It is clearly not a chamber music work anymore, but a re-creation for a large symphony orchestra with the generous infusion of Schoenbergian influence. Once the audience accepted that, we were offered a rare musical treat, elegantly performed and expertly conducted.

Schoenberg was a master of tone colours and a brilliant orchestrator; he worked for many years as a teacher of composition in Europe and America. This orchestration is true to the original as far as the notes and rhythms are concerned but Schoenberg took characteristic liberties when changing dynamics or articulation. His arrangement is never less than fascinating, although the essential chamber music-like conversation and the constant attention to spontaneous changes of fine detail (to be taken for granted between four well-rehearsed instrumentalists) inevitably disappears from his version. There is plenty to compensate for this though: resonant horns or a pair of trumpets take over opulent string melodies, a xylophone tinkles merrily instead of some familiar piano passages. The transcription of the middle section of the third movement (Andante con moto) is quite simply brilliant and for once offers something a quartet of musicians would find difficult to accomplish: a military march, pomp and circumstance in such perfect Teutonic splendour that it would have hardly surprised me if Otto von Bismarck had walked onto the stage afterwards to thank the orchestra and salute Wilhelm I, King of all Germans in absentia.

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