An orchestra and soloist in perfect harmony at Abu Dhabi Classics
For more than 150 years, Robert Schumann’s love affair with his wife and muse, Clara – and the subsequent love triangle with Brahms, 23 years his junior – has fascinated scholars and classical-music groupies alike, as they pore over his life and work for significant parallels.
But they never needed to look far in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Composed in 1845, long before such infidelities could drive him to the brink of suicide – at that time Brahms was just 12, and would not meet the celebrity couple for another eight years – Schumann’s only completed piano concerto remains one of the purest dedications of affection in music.
Its main theme – C-B-A-A – is believed to be a direct transposition of his wife’s nickname, Chiara, into musical notation (H is commonly used in German scores for the note B).
One wonders if Clara – the prodigious talent whose key skills both men would fall for – knew this when she performed the work’s premiere in Leipzig on New Year’s Day 1946.
It seems certain French pianist David Fray did when he took the stool at Emirates Palace on Tuesday night, performing the piece as the penultimate event of the Abu Dhabi Classics 2014/15 season. After a few dramatic bars announcing its arrival, the concerto’s lush theme is announced and passed around the orchestra.
Much empty space is left for the piano – a series of spellbinding, dreamlike passages that Fray tackles with ease. Hunched over the keys with control and intent, one feels a single breath could throw him off course.
Yet for all that dexterous key-dancing, this is a light, warm and tender work – one feels the passion scholars rage over shining through. Romantic-era composers are known for crashing crescendos and dramatic dynamics, yet this is a Romantic work that feels genuinely, well, romantic, with a small “r”.
And while the concerto form is often a vehicle for showy, argumentative exchanges – a battle between the might of the orchestra and the virtuosity of the soloist – Schumann’s communal concerto sounds more like the polite murmuring of agreement.
After the interval, the opening notes announced a very different Romantic composer – coming from a very different place, geographically and emotionally – Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. With the grand piano wheeled away during the break, this was the chance for Italy’s Orchestra Accademia Teatro alla Scala to shine.
While the Russian composer’s first three symphonies remained wedged within the forms of the day, it was his last three that broke fresh ground. Inspired by both the personal turmoil of a marriage crisis and the restless urge to document such suffering with innovations, Tchaikovsky’s fourth drove contemporary critics to fits, but has been remembered as one of the most expressive examples of the form.
Conducted empathically by his countryman Mikhail Tatarnikov, a tense, cinematic spell is cast by the recurring theme’s looming, claxon-like drone. The lengthy first movement is a dense, restless barrage of volcanic swells that strike up musical scales and nervous systems alike – accumulative melodies that climb, climb, slip down, climb again, higher this time, slip, then reach forth further, gradually acquiring more heroic momentum – more power, more passion – with each consecutive ascension.
It’s a work I listened to – or rather played – extensively while studying at university, and hearing it here offered a bittersweet throwback to long nights spent wrestling with dense philosophical tomes. In hindsight, there can hardly be a better soundtrack: Tchaikovsky’s fourth is so beautiful, so accomplished, and so very profound, there are moments you doubt how it can exist in a world so ugly – so painful, so irrational – despite being a document of that world’s very ugly, irrational suffering.
• The Abu Dhabi Classics 2014/15 season concludes with performances by pianist Bertrand Chamayou at Manarat Al Saadiyat on May 27 and in Al Ain on May 28 (venue to be confirmed)
Updated: April 29, 2015 04:00 AM