Despite a glacial start, Pintscher and Serkin pull out all stops.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
May 13, 2015

The German conductor and composer Matthias Pintscher was in Sydney for a return visit after a fine outing a few years back conducting Stravinsky. His reputation for clarity and a contemporary approach to the classics have earned him numerous plaudits, and in the company of modernist American pianist Peter Serkin the audience were treated to a bit of something old with a hint of something new and certainly something borrowed.

In many ways this was a superb concert, but it got off to an odd start with a fatally laid back reading of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, the composer’s famous birthday aubade to his new wife Cosima. A work full of joy and affection ended up a little short on both as Pintscher appeared to focus on a sense of awakening from slumber rather than any more romantic awakening. With its emphasis on the heavier string sound rather than the perky woodwind representing the sounds of nature, this was more of a middle-aged Tristan than a young Siegfried, and it nearly ground to a halt altogether in the central section. The second half got a bit more of a move on, saved by some generous flights of timbral passion in the SSO violins and some fine wind solos, and the ending seemed to settle at the right tempo that the beginning had sadly lacked.

Happily, the rest of the attractive programme swept any disappointment away, led by Peter Serkin in a terrific rendition of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto. One of the composer’s late works, almost consciously adapting his sound to his new American homeland, the first movement found soloist and conductor focussing on that sense of mellow fruitfulness. Serkin’s reading was secure, controlled, even a little careful, while Pintscher rooted the music in the old world of Brahms rather than the new world of Stravinsky.

The second movement, however, was where it all came to life. The opening Copland-esque strings introduced piano playing of enormous concentration and a daring sparseness of utterance. Every chord spoke volumes, weighed and measured and keenly felt. Serkin’s sense of light and shade was miraculous. The central ‘night music’ section with Bartók’s adopted American bird calls was most atmospheric and beautifully played by strings, wind and brass. The finale had plenty of fire in its belly, the curious fuguing sections well controlled, and beautifully balanced with the soloist. The penultimate (highly un-Bartókian) waltz led into the final ultra-Hungarian ‘appassionata’, brilliantly carried off by all concerned.

Schoenberg’s fascinating arrangement of Brahms’ G Minor Piano Quartet made up the second half and what a treat it was. Writing of his thinking behind the attempt, the arch-mage of atonality wrote, “My reasons: 1) I like this piece; 2) It is seldom played; 3) It is always very badly played because the better the pianist the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted to hear everything, and this I achieved.” He certainly did, and even though he scored it for a larger orchestra than usual with weightier lower brass (there is even a glockenspiel and xylophone!), what he produced feels like the Brahms’ symphony that got away – his Symphony No 0, if you like.

Schoenberg’s masterstroke is the way he passes the thematic cells around the orchestra, illuminating Brahms’ intricate structures in new and exciting ways. Matthias Pintscher clearly loves the work and gave it a bravura reading, crisp and alert to details of balance and orchestration. The massive first movement throbbed and pulsed with energy and the SSO embraced it all with spirit and panache. This was entertainment of a high order.

The Intermezzo scampered along like a try-out for Brahms 3 until Schoenberg hijacks it with some distinctly non-Brahmsian snarling brass and that cheeky xylophone. The anthemic Germanic Andante sang out loud and proud before piling into the almost tongue-in-cheek central marche militaire – an interlude which built to a moment of toe-tapping pomp and circumstance that had many in the audience visibly bouncing along in their seats.

The final folkish Rondo was an absolute riot of colour and sound with its crazy percussion making it sound not unlike a Hungarian danse macabre. With each section seeming to go ever more over the top – and glittering with cymbal, glockenspiel and powered by side drum and timps – this was more the Schoenberg of Gurrelieder than echt-Brahms, but what deliciously vulgar larks! Great playing, great conducting, and highly recommended, despite the soporific opening.

Romantic Visions is repeated on May 15 and 16, while Peter Serkin is in recital at City Recital Hall on May 18.

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