Opposite poles

A juxtaposition of 19-century giants

German pianist Katharina Treutler. photo courtesy of RBSO

Another wonderfully entertaining and enlightening evening at the Thailand Cultural Centre was provided by the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra at their latest concert on Sept 6, conducted by Canadian/Maltese maestro Charles Olivieri-Munroe. "Hungarian Rhapsody – German Passion" juxtaposed contrasting works emanating from the two big opposing camps of mid-19-century music -- namely, those of Liszt/Wagner and Schumann/Brahms.

Franz Liszt is not often performed at the TCC, and so it was a genuine pleasure to hear and enjoy two of his best known works for orchestra on this occasion. The concert opened with Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 In C-sharp Minor in the orchestral arrangement by Karl Müller-Berghaus, laid out in the rather more instrumental-friendly key of C-minor. The other impressive bookend of the evening was Les Préludes, widely considered Liszt's archetypal symphonic statement, regarded by most musicologists to be the very first "symphonic poem". In between these two works, which essentially concentrate on the pyrotechnic aspects of music, were compositions by perhaps the most famous married pianist/composers of all time, Clara and Robert Schumann. Arguably demonstrating and emphasising, in both cases, the more purely musical side of music, as it were, Clara Schumann's Piano Concerto In A Minor was placed before the intermission, with her husband's much later Introduction and Allegro Appassionato In G Major (1849) starting the second half.

Liszt had originally written his instantly recognisable Hungarian Rhapsody for solo piano, of course, as a vehicle to display his own superhuman technical facility -- therefore, the various orchestral parts make considerable demands on the players. For example, the violas have to explore with frenetic activity some upper registers which they seldom venture into, while the brass section has an unusually active part to play. The RBSO sections rose to the challenges admirably, relishing the opportunity to shine with passages of bravura.

The opening Lassan (Slow in English) highlighted one of the RBSO's very strongest assets, the amazing clarinettist Yos Vaneesorn. The section is punctuated by several spectacularly virtuosic clarinet solos, meant to sound as though improvised. His excellent playing ticked all the right boxes, the all-round musicianship a perfect combination of technical wizardry matched effortlessly with an extremely high level of musicality.

Olivieri-Munroe's podium presence certainly has an extrovert side to it, very suitable to this Czardas style of music. The ensuing fast section known as the Friska (Fresh in English) began with the tinkling imitation of the cimbalom, a folk instrument used in Gypsy bands. Adding to the frantically exuberant tone were several invigorating accelerandi, building up a frenzy through the final spectacular chase to the finish.

It is very probable that this evening we witnessed the first ever performance in Thailand of Clara Schumann's Piano Concerto. Written when she was only 14, it is an accomplished composition by any standards, undoubtedly deserving more exposure. The exceptionally gifted German pianist Katharina Treutler gave us an immaculate interpretation, faultless technically and absorbing artistically. Truly world-class in her sensitive pianism, she captivated the hall with the most endearing touch on the magnificent-sounding Steinway. Clara was effectively the female counterpart to Liszt in the pantheon of Romantic period piano legends -- her own keyboard writing itself has considerable polish and power. Treutler fully explored the depth of the score, with tidy and sympathetic accompaniment provided by the conductor and the RBSO. The sentimental Romanze movement contains an intimate dialogue between piano and solo cello. Principal cellist Apichai Leamthorng once again distinguished himself at this most exposed juncture -- bravo!

Robert Schumann's Introduction and Allegro Appassionato In G Major is a simply delightful piece, with charming harmonies and lovingly crafted melodic invention which flowed through Treutler's fingers with a subliminal ease. She brought out endless subtleties of phrasing which seemed to echo the fondness and passion that was famously shared by the Schumanns. After all, Robert had conceived the work while immersed in the works of the unrestrained Lord Byron himself.

And so we arrived at the seminal Les Préludes, a defining showcase for orchestra which brought out the very best throughout the RBSO ranks. Their intense level of commitment was palpable, and one can sense that this increasingly inspired orchestra is truly growing in confidence from one performance to the next. It was a delight to hear the beautifully transparent playing and spot-on intonation of flautist Teerat Ketmee, a prime example of the changing and developing face of the modern RBSO. Arpeggiated acrobatics for the amassed string section also caught both the eye and the ear, with whirlwind climaxes given full expression by Olivieri-Munroe. Above all, this listener came away from the concert with the firm impression that the bar is most definitely being raised ever higher in this current era of the RBSO.