Not athletes or para-athletes in Rio this time, but a Brazilian conductor and a pianist who, with considerable help from the SSO, produced an outstanding concert in the APT Master Series last night. The conductor was Marcelo Lehninger who, at 37, is in baton world ascendancy while 72-year-old pianist, Nelson Freire, showed that age is irrelevant when it comes to technique and musicality. The program began, appropriately, with an overture. Beethoven wrote several as concert pieces not related to specific theatrical works. This time we were treated to Coriolan, Op.62 which, after arresting unadorned C octaves and big replying chords, gives way to a pleasant theme with a few detours into dramatic recapitulations. The conclusion is so hushed that it had those not familiar with the piece wondering why Lehninger had stopped waving his arms.
The furniture removalists then got work positioning the Steinway in centre stage and redistributing the orchestral chairs for the arrival of Nelson Freire to join the SSO in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54. Although this piano concerto ranks among the best of the genre, it is not as popular as it once was, lacking the growl and howl of those by Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Grieg, Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky, all crowd favourites in the current heroic age.If you want liaisons with the orchestra and unobvious technical demands, this is the perfect piano concerto.
The first movement sat around unloved for years as a Phantasie for Piano and Orchestra before Schumann added a second and third movement, thus enabling his famous pianist wife, Clara, to show it off in her repertoire.
The first dramatic statements from the piano immediately established Freire as both a powerful and sensitive interpreter of this concerto. For the most part, he played with bell-like clarity, taking a great deal of trouble to merge with the orchestra and hit bullseyes together. Only very occasionally was a flicker of muddiness discernible, such as in the two descending runs in the first movement cadenza. Perhaps because I was brought up on the peerless Lipatti recording of the Schumann I’ve become too fussy. Anyway I’m looking forward to hearing Nelson Freire in his solo recital next Monday where he’ll range over several composers.
The removal of the piano and another shuffle of chairs brought the orchestra back, this time with substantial reinforcements (bull fiddle count: eight) to perform Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27. Hard to believe, but Rachmaninov had great doubts about this second symphony, especially after the hostile reception to his first. Vladimir Ashkenazy once told me: ‘Rachmaninov was not a confident composer’ yet to hear the second symphony you’d think just the opposite. It lasts for just on an hour without ever dragging or allowing you to nod off, or even relax. Most of the orchestra is busy for most of the time and pulls you along with it. The sweeping passion, the rich sadness and the occasional driving rhythms make this a great showpiece for a good orchestra, and the SSO responded brilliantly. Yes, the players were up to it, but I had the feeling that the conductor, Marcelo Lehninger, had a lot to do with the excellence of the performance. He’s an animated mover on the podium; not a leaper like some, but an upper body flinger. During quieter passages he’d lean on his podium rail or use his hands instead of his baton. I didn’t take this as affectation but as an overwhelming enthusiasm for the music. It certainly gave the appearance of having the orchestra totally with him.
The symphony comes in four distinct movements but fragments of earlier themes return to enhance cohesion. The fourth and final movement is spectacular, finishing with a heart-bursting roar after building, falling away and building again in Wagnerian style. And you can’t help being reminded of Tchaikovsky, except that the orchestration is better. But for sheer beauty, to the point of tears, you’d go no further than the third adagio movement which, to quote the program notes by Philip Sametz, ‘is perhaps the greatest love duet never written for the stage.’ Here, the honeyed clarinet of Francesco Celata wove pure magic.