This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, guest conductor Semyon Bychkov returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to present an overture-concerto-symphony program of seldom-encountered compositions. Indeed, “seldom” was so extreme that both the overture and the concerto were being played by SFS for the very first time. The entire program was steeped in nineteenth-century rhetoric, even if the concerto was completed in 1912.
That concerto is Max Bruch’s Opus 88a in A-flat minor, a concerto for two pianos and orchestra. Bruch wrote this piece for the Sutro sisters, the American pianists Rose and Ottilie. It is a bit ironic that San Francisco has had to wait so long for a chance to listen to this music, since the sisters were nieces of Adolph Sutro, a name familiar to anyone that has visited Cliff House or encountered the ruins of the Sutro Baths on the city’s Pacific coast. Both sisters had been students at the Berlin Conservatory (which is now part of the Berlin University of the Arts). One of the pieces they prepared as students was Bruch’s Opus 11 fantasy in D minor for two pianos; and Bruch was so impressed with their performance that he committed himself to writing a concerto for them.
The opus number reflects the fact that Bruch’s Opus 88 was also a “double concerto,” written in 1911 for clarinet, viola, and orchestra in the key of E minor. However, there is no thematic relation between Opus 88 and Opus 88a. Instead, Bruch composed Opus 88a around thematic material for an ongoing project, a suite for orchestra with organ, which he would not complete until 1915 and would not be published until after his death in 1920. The structure of Opus 88a may reflect they way in which Bruch had been approaching the suite, since the opening movement is a fugue preceded by an Andante sostenuto introduction. Both the second and fourth movements are sonata-allegro with Andante introduction, separated by an Adagio ma non troppo, which might be called the “official” slow movement.
One is struck by how straightforward all of these movements are. None of them take an extended approach to development, giving the impression that Bruch knew what he wanted to say and had no trouble wrapping things up after he said it. For the most part the concerto is organized around a give-and-take relationship between the two piano parts. Appropriately enough, these were again played by sisters, this time Katia and Marielle Labèque, making their first appearance with SFS since (if my records are correct) 2008.
Pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)
On that previous occasion they played Francis Poulenc’s two-piano concerto. Opus 88a was clearly a much more sober offering. Nevertheless, one could still sense a bit of wit in how riffs of elaboration would bounce back and forth from one sister to another. I would like to believe that Bruch intended that wit as a way to encourage the Sutro sisters to continue to play as a duo; but that wit could work the same magic with the Labèques, who are now seasoned professionals.
The overture that preceded Bruch’s concerto was Sergey Taneyev’s Opus 6, inspired by the Oresteia trilogy of plays by Aeschylus. Taneyev replaced Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky when the latter resigned from the Conservatory faculty in 1878. This is one of those cases in which the students are better known than the teacher, since Taneyev’s students included Reinhold Glière, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Alexander Scriabin.
Taneyev composed his Opus 6 in 1889, dedicated it to one of Tchaikovsky’s pupils, Anton Arensky; and its first performance was conducted by Tchaikovsky himself. It is unclear just how Taneyev saw the piece as either an interpretation or or a reflection on Aeschylus’ trilogy; but it is equally unclear that pursuing that question has much value. Far more significant is Taneyev’s capacity for working with the sonorities of a full orchestra. His ability to blend instruments from different sections is impressive and bordering on the uncanny.
The program note by James M. Keller cites Taneyev writing to Tchaikovsky to declare that his greatest interests are the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Wagner. There is no doubting that Taneyev had his own ways of tapping into Wagner’s technique at its richest, but one can also appreciate his valuing Mozart’s ability always to find the right way to balance the strings against both the wind and brass sections. These are all aspects of Taneyev’s work that are far more relevant that anything he might have been trying to say about Aeschylus.
Given the rich connection between Taneyev and Tchaikovsky, one can understand why Bychkov decided to conclude a program that began with a Taneyev overture with a Tchaikovsky symphony. His selection, however, was another piece that deserves more attention than it tends to get, the Opus 17 (second) symphony in C minor. This symphony draws heavily upon folk tunes from the Ukraine, known in the nineteenth century as “Little Russia.” (These days one has to wonder if “Big Russia” still feels the same way about that territory.)
Tchaikovsky tends to be best known for the last three of his six numbered symphonies, Opus 36 in F minor, Opus 64 in E minor, and Opus 74 (“Pathétique”) in B minor. Audiences tend to eat up the intense emotions, and all too many conductors seem to go to great lengths to dish out that emotional rhetoric as profusely as possible. Opus 17, on the other hand, reflects a younger Tchaikovsky with a much lighter disposition. Bychkov clearly associated this alternative mood, and the smiles on the faces of many of the SFS players made it clear that they were all to happy to follow him into that more cheerful territory. The result was a thoroughly upbeat symphonic account that complemented the far more sober rhetoric of the first half of the program, making for an experience that was not only well-balanced but also highly satisfying for being so.