Symphony No. 7 in A major – great Beethoven for the opening of the Easter Festival

In line with the theme of the 21st Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival, which refers to music and the fine arts, the inaugural Sunday concert at the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall opened with Sergei Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem Isle of the Dead (1909).

At the earlier afternoon concert, which Elżbieta Penderecka called a “specific prelude” to the evening concert, Sinfonietta Cracovia under Jurek Dybał performed Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This year there will be no lack of musical works inspired by great paintings; the theme advanced by Prof. Mieczysław Tomaszewski is evocative and unearths many pieces that remain obscure in our country.

Despite the continuing popularity of Rachmaninov in Poland, Isle of the Dead is still rarely performed, although it is considered to overshadow Rachmaninov’s symphonies or Symphonic Dances. When writing it, the composer had his worst years behind him: depression, suicidal thoughts, seeing a psychologist to heal his sore soul. A melancholy man, he was deeply affected by the disaster of his first juvenile symphony, which was mercilessly criticized by older columnists. He had behind him the first successes as a conductor and composer, including Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, which brought him undying fame. He had ahead of him success on the American continent. Yet, Isle of the Dead brings many sombre tones and only one bright moment, which after a dozen or so bars darkens and resolves into a dramatic climax. Such a strong influence on the Russian composer was exerted by a black-and-white reproduction of a painting by Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin, which depicts a white figure in a boat heading across the glassy surface of a lake towards a rocky islet. In the disturbing silence of this painting, Rachmaninov heard the theme of Dies irae, a medieval tune associated with the Day of Judgment. It reappeared in his subsequent compositions, e.g. his Variations on a Theme of Paganini. This motif underlines the entire poem. From the very first bars, Isle… commands the audience’s attention with a mysterious motif of “rolling waves” in an uneven 5/8 rhythm and keeps up the tension until the last bars. This work was interpreted by the performers at the Sunday inauguration – the superb Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern orchestra under the baton of Josep Pons, who brilliantly measured out the work’s drama, grading the dynamics and tension up to the two great fortissimo possibile discharges.

It is worth taking a moment to consider the orchestra and its conductor. The concert – broadcast by Polish Radio Two – was dedicated to the memory of the great Polish conductor Stanisław Skrowaczewski, who died in February this year. In the early 1990s Skrowaczewski was the first guest conductor of this orchestra and made many recordings with it; of particular note within this collaboration are complete recordings of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies. In turn, the technically excellent Catalan conductor Josep Pons (pronunciation: joozep pons), is the musical director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, where he conducted Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger among others.

So the evening was very international: in Warsaw a German orchestra under the baton of a Catalan conductor performed a symphonic poem by a Russian composer, followed by two works by Beethoven, including Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, with Javier Perianes from Spain as the soloist. An intriguing pianist – his interpretation of Beethoven was at times surprising, it seems that now and then, the artist’s hot temperament got the better of him and liberated him from the constrictions of classical, elegant form. On the other hand, the E flat major Concerto is a virtuoso showpiece written with tremendous panache, and Perianes did full justice to this aspect of the work. He played virtuoso ornaments with sparkling clarity and a sense of freedom, which lent credence to the improvisatory origin of these virtuosic passages all over the keyboard. Perianes is not a pianist to underline details; having a supreme command of the keyboard, he prefers using broad planes of sound, long phrases. His formidable rapport with the instrument is a value in itself and holds the audience’s attention, making Javier Perianes stand out from other pianists of his generation. He has something to say and he showed this very clearly in the encore: Danza ritual del fuego from the piano transcription of a suite from the ballet El amor brujo by Manuel de Falla.

By the way, do you remember Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock? One of its leitmotifs is a theme from the second movement of Beethoven’s Concerto in E flat major, which sounds as if the composer listened to a dreamy voice from the beyond.

But the best was left for the second half of the concert, which featured Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92. In this exuberant work, which seems to send the audience into ecstatic dance, the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern gave a first-class performance. Clarity of sound and at the same time harmonic density, impeccable articulation of robust rhythmic figures, which are the key to this work, together with harmonious relationship between sections, in particular the string and woodwind sections, and all of this in blistering tempi set by Josep Pons. They played like inspired or with abandon, all underpinned by excellent technique. The third movement of this work, the scherzo Presto, was particularly charming under the baton of Pons. All of a sudden I heard … … opera buffa. After all, Pons is an opera conductor. The rapidly repeated triple rhythmic figure, which was taken over in dialogue and calls from different instruments, was connotative of virtuoso vocal ostinato, typical of buffa, like from Rossini. The connotation with the Italian opera master is only slightly anachronistic – the Seventh Symphony was composed in 1812.

Anna S. Dębowska

Sunday, 2 April, 7:30 pm, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall