Saturday, September 24, 2022

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Max Reger’s Piano Concerto (1910, his Opus 114) isn’t heard too often. Not many pianists play it. One such was the late Peter Serkin (see below), and he was following his father, Rudolf, who recorded it with Ormandy. It’s no surprise that Marc-­André Hamelin champions it (and I wonder, in passing, if it appeals to Igor Levit or Garrick Ohlsson). It’s a substantial piece in terms of denseness, roughly forty minutes, and in three movements.

The writing for the pianist is complex and demands the transcendental technique that Hamelin possesses, and accordingly he made music from a piece that doesn’t give up its secrets too readily, opening with an orchestral introduction that is sombre if dramatic (timpani rolls, throbbing basses; the scoring is ‘classical’, not even including trombones), and then we’re off, the pianist entering with a cavalcade of notes, the movement as a whole contrasting high-octane theatre with reflective lyricism, engaging in itself if without providing too many thematic hooks even though much emotion is expressed through sound, and here with the great pleasure found through Hamelin (playing from memory) eating the notes comprehensively and the Berlin Phil and Marek Janowski intensely active on their own terms and in support.

Come the end of the first movement, the music seems to have not travelled far, although the succeeding slow one involving soulful expression is very appealing, Schumann-esque in places, the Concerto signing-off with a sort of jagged dance, perhaps drily witty occasionally, and with a positive ending. (In March 2010 Hamelin recorded the Reger for Hyperion, Hamelin’s encore was a winner, Reger’s Humoreske (from Opus 20), devilish and delightful in equal measure.

Following the interval Janowski (now eighty-three and these days Chief Conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic where he’s just opened the season with Bruckner Nine and returns there imminently for a complete Wagner ‘Ring’ Cycle) led Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony (No.3, E-flat, Opus 97). A superb performance. Janowski doesn’t give much away in facial expressions or body language. It’s all to do with a shapely baton and a meaningful left-arm, and, for us, listening intently. The first movement was exuberant, swinging and subtly flexible, with much attention given to details and dynamics, and rhythmic elan; then a beautifully shaped and bubbly second, coming to a serene conclusion, followed by a gently nudged middle movement. With (iv), only now are trombones introduced, we have an awe-struck description of Cologne Cathedral, a response Janowski shares from first-hand experience (he said during an interview), and then a lightly tripping and joyous Finale. This was a trip worth taking.

Many Happy Returns to Marek Janowski, 83 today. Film of him conducting Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (revised version) with the Frankfurt Radio SO on November 23, 2018; Alte Oper, Frankfurt.

Reger: Piano Concerto. Peter Serkin/Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt; May 2016.

Paul Hindemith conducts Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Merry Theme of Johann Adolph Hiller, Opus 100 (1904). New York Philharmonic; Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center; April 25, 1963.