Transfiguring the dead into divine spark
The Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) delivered a challenging programme last Saturday: Arnold Schoenberg’s early tone poem Transfigured Night; the Suite from Leoš Janá ek’s The House Of The Dead; and young Taiwanese talent Ting-Chia Hsu joined Chief Conductor Alfonso Scarano and the TPO in Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No.3.
Widely regarded as the pinnacle of Romantic pianism, Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No.3 In D Minor, Op.30, recalls an image of the towering virtuoso with large, sprawling hands. The composer played it in 1910 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Gustav Mahler. After a decade of neglect, it was popularised by pianist Vladimir Horowitz and acquired the reputation of being one of the most technically demanding, even feared, concertos in the piano repertoire. Scott Hicks’ film Shine (1996), starring Geoffrey Rush, illustrates the concerto’s difficulty.
After his 2015 debut with the TPO, the 27-year-old Ting played the opening of Rachmaninoff’s Third with a soft, barely audible legato. Some listeners later observed that the piano did not stand out enough from the orchestra. Even in the second row, Ting sounded at times too quiet and timid. The passage work that followed lacked in flow and continuity.
This, however, improved in the extended cadenzas, in which Ting surmounted many hurdles and executed complex pianistic figurations with brilliance: his trills were incredibly smooth and scales blindingly fast, as if attempting to prove Horowitz’s belief that “the secret to virtuosity is to play more notes in a shorter amount of time”. By this standard, Ting succeeded admirably, but over the technical fireworks loomed a cloud of disengagement. The struggle inherent in the music was stymied by a conflict between two opposing visions of Rachmaninoff, a mismatch of a great conductor and a great pianist. Accordingly, the interplay between the soloist and the orchestra lacked a balance of tempo and an urgency of dialogue. As a humorous parallel, listen on YouTube to the 1962 concert introduction to Brahms’s D Minor Piano Concerto, in which conductor Leonard Bernstein disowns pianist Glenn Gould’s interpretation of the piece.
After the intermission, a spirit of harmony returned to Mahidol. Schoenberg, the 20th century revolutionary and pioneer of the twelve-tone technique, is best known for his early tonal works, of which Transfigured Night (1899) is the most appealing to many listeners. This symphonic movement for strings alone was inspired by Richard Dehmel’s poem. In the poem, two lovers roam the forest on a moonlit night. She confesses to him that she bears the child of another man.
Maestro Scarano and the TPO highlighted the programmatic aspect of the music. Soft string shimmers painted the darkness of the cold forest. The violins expressed the sadness of the woman’s confession, and the cellos and double basses the man’s contemplation of the news. Later, bright tone colours of the combined strings reflected the man’s peaceful acceptance.
Scarano’s players created suspense by repeatedly hinting at, but deliberately postponing, a return to the home key of D. Their phrasing unfettered the boundaries of metre, giving a sense of evolution. The evolution was twofold: the narrative moving from secrecy to forgiveness and Schoenberg stretching the diminishing tonal clarity of late Romanticism towards atonality, a new language free from the old rules of harmony. (To experience this startling freedom, listen to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, called by Stravinsky “the solar plexus of modernism”.) The night was then “transfigured” from D minor to D major with the glow of the couple’s inner warmth.
Taking the audience from an Austrian forest to Bohemia, the TPO performed the suite from Janá ek’s last opera The House Of The Dead. Posthumously premiered in 1930, the opera derives from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s autobiographical novel about his political imprisonment in Siberia. Significantly, Janá ek borrowed Dostoevsky’s idea of the divine spark present in every human being, which was then rekindled by the TPO’s percussion: the rarely heard sonorities of an anvil and a rattle, while the clank of chains evoked the prisoners.
The TPO conveyed the opera’s theme of isolation — felt also by the composer because his young muse Kamila Stösslová had rejected him — and the coldness of the prison. The grim atmosphere lifted in the second movement when impetuous tempi and reckless rhythms in the orchestra captured the grotesque humour Janá ek brought to Dostoevsky. In the last movement, the TPO conjured up a touching moment in the opera depicting the escape of a wounded eagle.
Listeners may have wondered why the music seemed to repeatedly stop and start, and why the mood abruptly shifted. By this, the orchestra accurately interpreted Janá ek’s disjointed, fragmentary style, marked by rapidly changing melodies and pace. If the Rachmaninoff found the audience puzzled, the Schoenberg and the Janá ek gleaned enthusiastic ovations, and ensured this was a compelling evening.
In loving memory of Ung-Aang Talay, a long-time Bangkok Post journalist who loved Schoenberg.