Liszt Tasso, Lament and Triumph
Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor
Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition
Ingrid Fliter, piano/Pinchas Steinberg
Sydney Opera House, July 1

Following this excellent concert I was able to speak with the conductor in the Green Room at the Sydney Opera House. Pinchas Steinberg is a fascinating man to talk to. His experiences as a conductor over the past fifty years and his views on the future of classical music were absorbing, if somewhat alarming: he is convinced that unless classical music concerts become more compelling, with more exciting events, the artform will gradually die. And he doesn’t mean doing populist deals with rock bands in order to attract a younger audience.

If the success of this concert was anything to go by, he was correct. On paper it was a standard three-work program familiar to classical audiences – a short orchestral item or overture, a concerto and a major symphonic work. It could have been a very ordinary evening, and more often than not in my experience, it usually is. In this case, Steinberg showed what a difference diligent and inspiring conducting can make.

The concert opened with Liszt’s tone poem Tasso, Lament and Triumph. Liszt was the father of the tone poem at a time when program music, a style much derided by many high-minded musicologist and academics and greatly beloved by you and me (if I may be so bold), came into its own. It is a very early work in the style and doesn’t grab you with the ferocity that Les Preludes does, for example. And it is nowhere near as good. However, conductor and orchestra made the best they could of the work.

The Schumann Piano Concerto was next on the program. It was not the fine playing of Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter which made the biggest impression on me; rather it was Steinberg’s beautiful accompaniment. He supported Fliter very sympathetically, at the same time realising the delicacy of much of the orchestral score. Together, pianist and conductor made an overly familiar concerto into a memorable event.

Then followed the most exciting and convincing account of Pictures at an Exhibition that I can recall hearing in a concert hall. The depth of character that Steinberg and players brought to the work was marvellous, from the steady and ruminative trumpet Promenade, beautifully played by Paul Goodchild, to Christina Leonard’s sad, lonely saxophone solo in The Old Castle. Each picture was well-crafted. One could see the mud sticking to the wheels of the Polish ox cart as the conductor drew the linear aspects of the piece along laboriously and to great effect. The rich and poor Jews in Goldenberg and Schmyule argued as never before, again with Goodchild making a meal of the high-pitched stutterings of the poorer man. The gossips chattered in Limoges, contrasting with the dark lament which infused the brass chords of Catacombs. The Great Gate of Kiev is the work’s apotheosis. More often than not most performances are a cannonade from beginning to end. In this case it segued from the manic energy of Baba Yaga with restraint and serenity. Not only could one see the great gate rising grandly before us, it gave the performers somewhere to go as the music gathered strength and purpose leading to the rousing finale. The concert hall audience was equally roused and gave conductor and orchestra a huge reception.

As I reported at the beginning of this review, Mr Steinberg has many concerns about the way in which classical music concerts are structured and presented these days. He laments the poor standard of conducting around the world, the number of vin ordinaire concerts where more often than not the standard cannon is played indifferently under competent but dull conductors. I sincerely hope that the orchestra’s management sees fit to get him back here as soon as possible.