Arts & Events

All in a Day’s Work: Two Fine Pianists and a Bruckner Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday February 26, 2016 - 11:45:00 AM

On Thursday, February 25, I attended both a matinee performance at Davies Hall of the San Francisco Symphony with pianist Maria João Pires and, in the evening, Richard Goode’s piano recital at Herbst Theatre featuring an all-Bach program. Making her San Francisco Symphony debut, veteran Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires gave an exquisite performance in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. With Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt leading the orchestra and Maria João Pires playing with sublime finesse, this was a performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto that emphasized the delicacy of this work. Ms. Pires never overstates the music. Even when playing fortissimo, she never hammers away as many other pianists do when playing Beethoven. Instead, Pires takes us inside the music, enabling us to feel the delicacy that often gets over-whelmed by more aggressive pianists. 

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto certainly gets off to an aggressive start, with the orchestra issuing thunderous C minor outbursts that prefigure those in the composer’s Fifth Symphony. There ensues a lengthy orchestral introduction of two themes, one a blunt assertion heard first in the strings and quickly answered by the woodwinds before being taken up by the whole orchestra, the second a gracious melody in the major mode heard in the violins with clarinets. The exposition is expanded at great length before the piano even begins to play, and when Maria João Pires makes her entrance it is by way of an ornamental, three-measure lead of scales played in octaves. Pires then states the main theme in solo fashion. Here Beethoven utilizes the new technology that enabled piano manufacturers to stretch the range of their instruments, and he leads his pianist all the way up to the C above the ledger line atop the treble staff. Even here, however, Maria João Pires plays with an exquisite touch. Beethoven, as we know, greatly admired Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto No. 24, and in his own C minor concerto Beethoven follows Mozart in allowing an intricate dialogue between piano and orchestra to extend far beyond the normal conventions of the era. In fact, in this first movement the solo cadenza is followed by a coda in which the piano takes the lead with arpeggios while the orchestra offers a modest accompaniment. The movement ends with the piano taking up yet again the scales-in-octaves with which it began. 

The second movement is a lush, lovely Largo in E Major. Then piano opens with a solo of gentle lyricism. Later, Beethoven creates a noble dialogue between the piano playing arpeggios and flute and bassoon over pizzicato strings. Only at the end is the hushed mood of this movement broken by a surprising fortissimo chord. The final movement is a rollicking, ebullient Rondo that is one of Beethoven’s most familiar and popular movements for piano and orchestra. With the lively tempos provided by conductor Herbert Blomstedt and the intelligent phrasing of soloist Maria João Pires, this C minor Piano Concerto by Beethoven was a sheer delight. 

After intermission the orchestra returned to play Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor. Blomsted chose to perform the 1873 Nowak edition of this much-revised symphony, which earlier had been brutally revised by the Schalk brothers, two of Bruckner’s students. Bruckner, who was orphaned at age twelve and was taken in as a choir singer by the Augustinian monastery at St. Florian near Linz, never overcame his lowly social status. He spoke with a peasant accent, wore trousers that looked like they’d been made by a carpenter, was clumsy in society, had a disturbing tendency to fall in love with sixteen year-old girls, and was extremely pious, once interrupting a lesson in counterpoint he was teaching to kneel in prayer when he heard the angelus sound in the church next door. His music, when it was first heard in Vienna, received a harsh welcome. Audiences fled in droves. Only Gustave Mahler offered him praise and consolation. In an admiring gesture, Mahler even borrowed a phrase from the Scherzo of Bruckner’s Third Symphony for the Scherzo of Mahler’s own First Symphony.  

Bruckner’s symphonies all proceed by means of small blocks of music set in dynamic contrast with one another in often surprising ways. Passages that seem to build towards an all-out, full orchestra fortissimo will suddenly come to an abrupt halt, only to be followed by music of a gentle character heard piano in the strings only. There’s a set of such moments in the Scherzo of Bruckner’s Third Symphony that simply makes me smile with delight when I hear it. First the composer builds up an extended passage with full orchestra and blaring brass. Then, suddenly, when we least expect it, he returns to a gently swaying dance tune from the Austrian countryside heard piano in the strings. After a few measures of this lowly but ingratiating dance tune, Bruckner changes course again and embarks on yet another build-up of full orchestra and blaring brass playing fortissimo. In fact, the ending of the whole symphony proceeds in similar fashion, with a lengthy pianissimo slowly transforming into a blazing fortissimo. Conductor Herbert Blomstedt led a thoroughly delightful and sensitive performance of this Symphony No. 3 in D minor by Bruckner. 

On Thursday evening I attended Richard Goode’s piano recital of an all-Bach program at Herbst Theatre. Having heard Richard Goode play all three of Franz Schubert’s final sonatas last year in Davies Hall, I looked forward to hearing this excellent pianist play Bach. My only other experience of hearing a pianist perform an all-Bach program was one of the most memorable musical events I’ve ever attended. In the summer of 1969 I heard Sviatoslav Richter play Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II in the small, exquisite Romanesque church in Gourdon in the Dordogne region of southwest France. Richter’s performance was absolutely mesmerizing! 

Perhaps with Richter in mind, my hopes for this Richard Goode recital were set too high. Richter is, in my opinion, in a class by himself. In any case, though I can’t in any way detriment the playing of Richard Goode, this all-Bach recital never quite took off. It began graciously enough with Goode performing Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. Next on the program was Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major. This piece includes a popular Gavotte and ends with a highly complex Gigue that is a fugue in 12/16 meter. Richard Goode’s performance of this work was outstanding, the high point of the evening. There followed, however, Bach’s set of Fifteen Sinfonias, only one of which, the fifth, in E-flat Major, struck me as particularly interesting. 

After intermission, Goode played another work from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, the Prelude and Fugue No. 11 in F Major. The prelude proceeds smoothly enough in a broad 3/2 meter, while the fugue races off in the unusual meter of 6/16 and closes in a cheerful finale. Next on the program was Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor, whose tonality offers a dark, melancholy mood until we reach the surprising final Capriccio which brings the work to a brilliant close. The recital’s final work was Bach’s Italian Concerto, which the composer wrote at the age of fifty. It is a concerto in the Italian style, full of dynamic contrasts. The middle movement, an Andante, offers a lovely slow movement while the two outer movements display a mixture of solo and tutti passages. As an encore, Richard Goode played the Sarabande from Bach’s Fifth Partita.