Review: Emanuel Ax Plays Chopin with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

PSO Premiere of Schmidt Symphony No. 4, Strauss Tone Poem Make for Excellent Program

By George B. Parous

A diverse and entertaining program was offered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra last evening, and the crowd that braved the raw, late-winter night gave the orchestra and Manfred Honeck, conductor, the resounding applause that only PSO audiences seem to be able to conjure up. The orchestra’s first performance of Franz Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4 in C major; Frédéric Chopin’s virtuosic Concerto No. 2 in F minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 21, with pianist Emanuel Ax as guest soloist; Richard Strauss’ delightful Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Opus 28 – all were met with hearty ovations. It was a typical exchange between Honeck and the instrumentalists and an enthusiastic audience. It was by no means a thin audience, but it was far from capacity as well. It’s always a disheartening surprise to see any vacant chairs at a PSO concert, yet there they were.

The evening began with the orchestra’s first ever performance of Franz Schmidt’s rarely heard fourth symphony. The program speaks best of “the massive and colorful orchestration,” that follows the long horn solo which opens the work, “the intense emotional expression, the ripe chromatic harmonic idiom that pushes [Schmidt’s symphony] to the edge of conventional tonality…” This much is true, and Maestro Honeck and the instrumentalists made a fine display of their trademark quality of tight precision all through their playing of the symphony. Among the stand-out features were Anne Martindale Williams, principal cellist, and her gloriously played solo passages in the Adagio. The symphony is a bit unusual in that the four movements – I. Allegro molto moderato; II. Adagio; III. Molto vivace and IV. Allegro molto moderato – are played uninterruptedly, with no pauses between the movements. Schmidt was said to have been influenced by Mahler and Richard Strauss, just as all orchestrators after Richard Wagner were said to be influenced by him – and while Schmidt’s mood may have been influenced by the newer style and sound of those two, there is plenty of originality in his sound – certainly enough to qualify him as a very gifted composer in his own right.  

But is there a valid reason for Schmidt to be so poorly represented on concert stages of today? Or has he been unjustly relegated to comparative obscurity? Could his name account for the vacant rows in the auditorium last evening? Schmidt died in 1939, and after WWII, he was widely regarded as having been tainted by the Nazis. Many today disagree, claiming he was merely a favorite of that party; that he was feted by the Nazi authorities as the greatest living composer. He did, however, accept a commission from the Nazi government to write a cantata entitled The German Resurrection – which ended with a hallelujah-styled “Sieg Heil!” – that was not completed at the time of his death. His supporters insist that he was merely an apolitical Catholic who never lived to see the full horrors of the Nazi regime, but this “free pass” has been handed to many non-targeted individuals who lived in Germany and Austria in the period of 1933-1938. It’s also argued that he was dead before he could defend himself against allegedly pro-Nazi ties. For anyone not planning on attending the concert’s repetition at tomorrow’s matinee, there are a number of performances available on YouTube. For the rest, each auditor will need to read further and decide their own personal review of Schmidt and his work. The powers that be at the PSO have evidently researched any questions thoroughly and reached the proper conclusion; it’s difficult to imagine they performed the piece without having done so.

The second part of last evening’s concert began with the drawing card – Emanuel Ax’s performance with the PSO of Chopin’s Concerto No. 2 in F minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 21. Chopin is believed to have had help from fellow musicians in orchestrating his piano concertos, and while it was the second of his piano concertos to be published (after the Piano Concerto No. 1), and so designated as “No. 2”, it was actually composed first. The work was first heard at Warsaw in 1830, with Chopin as the piano soloist, and follows the three-movement formula that was the predominant style of Chopin’s era. This second half of the program also started with a rousing welcome for Mr. Ax. The jovial man half-jogs and half-walks onto the stage, his eyes occasionally taking a quick peek at the audience, before he quickly acknowledges the crowd and takes his seat at the Steinway concert grand.

We were at a disadvantage when it came to seeing Mr. Ax play, being seated where we could catch only occasional glimpses of his face, but the San Diego Union Tribune – and many other sources – speak of his “dependable musicality and effortless technique,” his “grace and humor.” It certainly sounded as if all this were true. “He defines the piano for many people,” Ax has said of Chopin, “and I don’t know any pianist that doesn’t want to play Chopin and practice [his work] all his life.” His practice and the orchestra’s rehearsals revealed a brilliant display last evening in the familiar and beautiful concerto. The audience rose to its feet and let loose a veritable avalanche of applause.  It took two recalls and an uproar from the audience to lure Mr. Ax back to the piano. Then pandemonium vanished into utter silence in a split second, and the crowd was rewarded with an eloquently played arrangement of Franz Schubert’s “Serenade.” Another ovation rang out after the encore, but Ax hurried away with his floral armload.

The program closed with Honeck and the orchestra’s splendid interpretation of Richard Strauss’ delightful Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Opus 28. Of this adaptation of musical phrases to the story of a character from German folklore, derived from a 15th century narrative by Johann Fischart, and long a household legend in Germany, last evening’s audience expressed its complete approval. The waggery of the mischievous player of practical jokes is portrayed by an impish little theme which appears frequently in the flutes and violins. The solo violin melody, played by Ms. Justine Campagna, sitting concertmaster, and the humorous sounds given out by the bassoons, brass and oboes, made for a breezy conclusion to the evening’s program. We were unable to stay behind for the post-concert Leoš Janáček selections.  

All told, it was a well entertained throng that piled out of Heinz Hall, back into the blustery night. The program will be repeated Sunday at 2:30 and is highly recommended. Tickets can be purchased, and other information obtained at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra website.

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