The Critics were Wrong

It's a strange truism that in the 19th Century music critics hated new music, while the public (mostly) liked it: whereas in the 20th Century music critics liked new music and the public hated it. ( A generalisation, but there is enough truth in it.)

One of the pieces they hated was Brahms's First Piano Concerto, written between 1854 and 1858 when he was still in his twenties: Mahler and Tchaikovsky were rude about it, and leading music critic Edward Bernsdorf panned it in quite excessive terms. And yet it's survived as a popular work and one of the great concertos. Yesterday evening at the Royal Festival Hall it was performed by Rudolf Buchbinder with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vassily Sinaisky (substituting for Daniele Gatti who was unable to appear). Whether the late substitution affected the performance one can't say: it was enjoyable enough, though for the most part I felt it never quite caught fire and the orchestral tone sounded a little thin.

I don't know whether Richard Strauss ever voiced an opinion on the Brahms Concerto, but he had enough bad experiences with critics to lead him to compose a piece in which he satirised them - Ein Heldenleben, sometimes facetiously translated as 'It's a hell of a life' but of course meaning 'A Hero's Life' - premiered in 1899 when he was 25. The hero in question is of course Strauss himself - he didn't suffer from false modesty (nor indeed real modesty) - and represents his self-confident hero and his travails, including some querulous woodwind passages representing his carping critics. Whether you apply the programme to the music, or just listen to it as a tone poem, it's certainly a gorgeously lush piece of orchestration: the orchestra and conductor gave it its full romantic value in a committed and involving performance.

Oddly enough, the hall was only about half full - unusual, particularly for two well-known and popular works. Whether this was due to the change of conductor, the wet weather, or the recession I couldn't say.

Posted: Wed - April 30, 2008 at 10:05 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM