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‘Four hands at one piano’:  Ranko Markovic and Marialena Fernandes perform Mozart and Bruckner at the Austrian Embassy, 05. 11. 2006 (JPr)



The concert was outstanding but the ambience in which it took place added to the special feeling for this event. The venue was the Austrian Embassy in Belgrave Square, a nineteenth-century part of London that seems to be frozen in time compared to the development and multi-culturalism of the rest of London which one passes through travelling there.

A quick look at the history of the Austrian Embassy in London reveals that since the Congress of Vienna it has only moved home once, and that was in 1866 when it went from Chandos House, No.2 Queen Anne Street, to the present building at 18 Belgrave Square. Apparently it remains the only building of the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Foreign Service still used today by Austrian diplomacy.

The building was constructed between 1814 and 1825 by the architect George Basevi according to a development plan for Belgrave Square by Thomas Cubitt and Joseph Cundry. The actual builder and first resident was philanthropist William Haldimand. In 1866, it consisted of 74 living rooms, salons, corridors, anterooms, servants’ pantries, staircases and closets. After a period of renting, the town house was finally bought in 1892 on behalf of Austria-Hungary. A small wing was added to the building, consisting of two administrative rooms, and another room above to be used jointly by three diplomats. In 1911 the office wing was further altered, providing space for the commercial director, an office, an anteroom and two rooms for the military and naval attachés.

Obviously the use of the building mirrored European history of the twentieth century and it seems so less important that by 2006 has become the venue for a concert of Mozart and Bruckner performed by the four hands of Ranko Markovic and Marialena Fernandes who last year performed a four-hand version of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony with much success in London (See review.)

Mozart, who in his youth gave a great number of duet concerts with his sister, became somewhat of a pioneer in composing music for four hands. The Sonata in C major K521 (composed 1787) and played here with all the repeats, is very charming. After an opening, fairly serious, fanfare there is a vivacious Allegro with a number of various moods. The Andante follows and seems to lead to what has been described as an ardent duet between distraught lovers, and the recapitulation brings some hints of sadness from that exchange. The Allegretto is one of Mozart's musical jokes; it proceeds calmly, or seems to, with the music trying to keep a straight face despite some humorous interludes, including a false ending involving scampering runs up and down the keyboard, which then subside before the trick is repeated to end the work.

During the middle years of his life Bruckner struggled for recognition of his music, particularly his symphonies, by the public at large. Vienna was, in the 1870s and 1880s, in the throes of an aesthetic controversy between the opposing schools of Wagner and Liszt on one side siding against the more ‘conservative’ Eduard Hanslick (the influential nineteenth-century music critic), with Johannes Brahms as undisputed figurehead. The naive Bruckner became a pawn in a game of politics he was intellectually unsuited for.

Bruckner dedicated his Third Symphony, with musical quotations from Die Walküre, to Richard Wagner. He made pilgrimages to Bayreuth to attend the premières of Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1876 and of Parsifal in 1882, and subsequently joined the Wagner Society in Vienna. This was interpreted by Hanslick and others as putting Bruckner firmly in the Wagner camp which itself was indeed only too pleased to have Bruckner as its ‘symphonist’. This set Bruckner up against Brahms. In the aesthetic cauldron of Vienna, conflicts were fought with unrestrained vehemence and little tolerance and these undercurrents prevented Bruckner’s works getting a fair hearing in the Austrian capital. This is not altogether surprising since the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society for the Friends of Music) that determined what performances would be put on in Vienna was firmly under the control of Brahms and his associates. So Bruckner suffered the scandalous neglect of the Viennese music establishment, all the more so because, it was directed at someone ‘who, unlike Wagner, was largely unable to defend himself.’ The first performance of Bruckner’s Third Symphony in 1877 was an unmitigated disaster, only a few people stayed till the whole symphony was finished, and one off them was Gustav Mahler.

Third Symphony for piano duet is in a version (1877) was mostly created by a young Gustav Mahler, though there is, as the Bruckner scholar, Crawford Howie, mentioned in his introduction to the concert, some debate about who exactly did what. The idea is that Mahler transcribed the first three movements and Bruckner’s pupil Rudolf Krzyzanowski (who it must be assumed attended the disastrous 1877 performance) the final one. It appears that the middle movements are barely altered and are a genuine transcription whilst last movement seems to foreshadow the later 1889 revision of the Symphony. There may be more than a bit of Mahler in the first movement but essentially this sounds like Bruckner, though it loses a lot from being genuinely able to recreate the brass, and not just in the famous trumpet solo near the beginning that earned the composer the nickname ‘the trumpet’ from Richard Wagner. Despite what has been done to it Bruckner’s vision comes shining through.

 



Markovic and Fernandes, who I am sure are talented soloists in their own right are possibly an even more impressive duo; they combine great technical skill with complete unity of purpose, functioning as one with a precise interplay of hands and rhythmic precision. In the Mozart they clearly relished every comedic twist and turn. They seemed to slyly comment on the music as it unfolded letting us in on all the jokes, the intrigue and the drama without giving the game away and spoiling our fun too much.

The Bruckner was very interesting, convincing and potent. An expressive opening began in mystery as it should do and with the trumpet theme, a short descending phrase, a cadence and a lyrical melody giving us all the musical material for the first movement. The second movement mixed piano fortissimos with moments of intimacy. The Scherzo romped along, the trio took us into the Austrian countryside and it all sounded quite spectacular. The Finale had a whirling start, later involving a chorale and a polka. Bruckner explained what this meant once to a student of his when they passed a building where the body of an eminent church architect lay in state. The two could also hear dance music through the door of a neighbouring inn. Bruckner explained, ‘In that house they're dancing, but there the master lies in his coffin. That's life, and that's what I wanted to show in my Third Symphony. The polka represents the fun and joy of the world, and the chorale represents its sadness and pain’. How Mahlerian is that?

It all came off outstandingly well though of course the end of the symphony can never have the impact that the full orchestra can give: nevertheless Markovic and Fernandes gave it all they had got and it was mightily impressive.

There was rapturous applause from the audience who were rewarded once again with a sparkling example of Schoenberg’s four-hand adaptation of Il barbieri di Siviglia as an encore. This was very apt because The Society for Private Musical Performances (Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen) was founded by Arnold Schoenberg in 1918 in Vienna to allow carefully rehearsed performances of ‘modern music’ accessible to those generally interested members of the musical public willing to listen. In the three years between February 1919 and 5 December 1921 (when the Verein had to cease its activities) it gave 353 performances of 154 works in a total of 117 concerts. It was very much in this spirit that this full-house was at the Austrian Embassy to hear this concert which as always (on these occasions) was preceded by informative pre-concert talks to put the music in context for the audience. There is a rumour that the same four hands will perform Mahler’s Seventh Symphony next year, and that is an event that will be well worth attending.



Jim Pritchard

 


 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)