All three of tonight’s musical items are linked to death, not a happy theme, but not an unusual one for composers. In the first work, an interlude from Schreker‘s opera The Distant Sound, the hero dies when he hears the Interlude played. The second piece is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27; this was the last work he played publicly in 1791 and he died later the same year. The main work tonight is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, known as the Pathetique Symphony. The composer died from cholera nine days after it was premiered, due to drinking infected water, though there is a suggestion he may have committed suicide. So rather a mournful theme, but fortunately for us the music does not all reflect this. Instead, there is much pleasure in the programme.
The concert opens, after some words of introduction from conductor Thomas Søndergård, with the aforementioned Interlude from Schreker’s Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound). Schreker was a Viennese composer who, although very well known in his time, has been somewhat neglected recently. Born in 1876, his music was post Wagnerian but romantic and melodic, in contrast to the ‘new music’ of the period which was often atonal. He became popular, in particular for his operas, until he was shunned because of anti-semitism under the Nazi regime of the 1930s. In the opera the hero Fritz is a composer who neglects his lover Grete to pursue his composition, only to discover her later. Dying in her arms, he recalls the theme of his unsuccessful opera. The music of the interlude is called Nachtstuck (Nocturne). It tells of a sleepless night where the hero wrestles over his wasted life, before redemption comes through the music. This is beautifully conveyed by the music, particularly in its use of two harps to give it a dreamy quality.
The concert continues after an interval to rearrange the piano and reduce the orchestra to a smaller string-based ensemble to accompany Steven Osborne in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27. Osborne is of course a local Edinburgh musician having begun his musical training at St Mary’s in Edinburgh, He is also an ‘artist in residence’ with the RSNO this season, so this is the first of several concerts he will give with the orchestra. The concerto begins quietly with a simple melody and then develops into a more substantial orchestral work, which although occasionally melancholic, ends in joyful mood. This doesn’t suggest Mozart’s imminent death. Osborne plays it masterfully and rewards the warm audience response with an encore of a Beethoven Bagatelle.
After the interval, the RSNO male players come out with their jackets off, brightening the stage in their vivid white shirts. Is this to dispel the gloom of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony? No, it appears that the Usher Hall is a bit warm tonight and the players have decided to do without their jackets! Conductor Søndergård does retain his black jacket, but it does not constrain him from giving a spirited conducting performance. It’s often thought that this is Tchaikovsky’s extended suicide note, given how soon after he died. Certainly, it begins in a melancholic manner with the Adagio, but later develops into a raucous climax at the end of the third movement; so much so that many in the audience think this is the end of the symphony and begin to applaud. However, Tchaikovsky composed a final movement, Adagio Lamentosa, which returns to the melancholic theme of the first movement and ends slowly, fading into silence.