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Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms: What could be more romantic?​

Pianist Jan Lisiecki, Guest Conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens
and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra;
​Photo credit: Nick Wons

It can be an interesting exercise to find the logic in a concert program. Last night’s concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall (to be repeated on Saturday June 8th) gave me occasion to ponder what might have gone into the making of such an outstanding evening of music. It wasn’t just a cookie-cutter recipe with a concert overture, superstar soloist and a large-scale symphony. There had to be more that went into the process to create such a very special evening of music.

To be sure, it took the skilled baton of Guest Conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens and the extraordinary playing of the Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki to create the musical magic. Steffens, a well-known operatic and symphonic conductor in Europe,  is about to take on the Music Directorship of the Prague State Opera. This week marks his debut with the Toronto Symphony. Conducting without a score, he was able to coax a wide range of expressivity from the orchestra. Lisiecki, at age 23, is perhaps the best-known pianist in the country and the busiest Canadian pianist on the international stages.

The concert was an all-German-Romantic program with three of the giants, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms represented, a good start for a great concert. Historically, the three composers were joined at the hip. In 1835, Mendelssohn took up residency in Leipzig where Schumann was living. They became great friends in the Davidsbund circle. Schumann’s relationship with Brahms is well known as is Schumann’s prediction that Brahms would be Beethoven’s successor. All three shared a love of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Putting these three composers together in a program makes perfect sense.

The program opened with Robert Schumann’s Overture to Manfred, Op. 115, proceeded to Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op 25 and concluded with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony Number 4 in E Minor, Op. 98, the early, middle and late Romantic years thus represented.

The Overture to Manfred is the first part of a setting of Byron’s dramatic poem of a man near the end of life, tired of life’s agony and seeking death. Was Schumann thinking of his own future demise having contracted syphilis earlier? The course of the disease ending in insanity and death was well known. Or was he thinking about Mendelssohn who had died recently? The sweeping melodies in the strings punctuated with ominous brass chords or a portentous horn solo gave the music its sombre quality. The rich texture of the strings and woodwind combinations was breathtakingly beautiful. The seldom-heard work is nonetheless a masterpiece.

The piano concerto was in striking contrast to the melancholy of the overture. On his return trip from Italy, Mendelssohn stopped in Munich where he fell in love with a seventeen-year-old pianist, Delphine von Schauroth. It was during his visit that he composed the concerto which he described as “a thing rapidly thrown off”. The light-hearted concerto full of pianistic bravura reflective of the happy times he had with the young pianist was a hit from its first performance. Lisiecki gave the piece an energetic performancefilled with subtle nuance. The middle movement oozed sentimentality, contrasting the brilliance of the rapid-fire octaves, scales and arpeggios in the outer movements.

John Edmund Cox, upon listening to Mendelssohn play, said, “Scarcely had he touched the keyboard than something that can only be described as similar to a pleasurable electric shock passed through his hearers and held them spellbound.” Another contemporary, Charles Salman said, “His fingers sang as they rippled over the keyboard”. The quotes could equally have been said about Lisiecki’s performance last night. The spontaneous standing ovation demanded an encore and Lisiecki responded with a Song without Words by Mendelssohn.

Guest Conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra;
Photo credit: Nick Wons

​​by David Richards
oronto ON June 7 2019

Following intermission, Steffens led the orchestra in a well-conceived and well-received performance of Brahms Symphony No. 4. The opening sighs in the strings become a central theme of the first movement and set the tone of stoic sincere reflection. Beautiful solos by Principal Flute Kelly Zimba, Principal Horn Neil Deland and Principal Clarinet Joaquin Valdepeňas were highlights for me. The entire orchestra was superb.

Brahms had grave concerns about his ability to create yet another great symphony. He wrote from Mürzzuschlag where he was composing the symphony to the conductor Hans von Bülow that his symphony-in-progress “tastes of the climate here; the cherries are hardly sweet here — you wouldn’t eat them!” There is no doubt today that the work is one of the giants of the nineteenth century. Thomas May wrote, “The Fourth Symphony represents a summa, a harvesting of all the wisdom Brahms had cultivated throughout his career with regard to the ideal of the symphony - not only as the leading contemporary champion of a genre regarded by many influential figures as passé but as a musical thinker deeply self-conscious of the lineage leading up to him.”

And so it was last night that both the Schumann and the Mendelssohn works were the preambles to this mighty symphony which in the final movement reflects back further than either of the earlier composers to the Baroque from which he borrows the form of a chaconne and turned it into the ultimate Romantic expression. The program’s logic brought a very satisfying feeling.

The Toronto Symphony will repeat the concert tomorrow night, Saturday, June 8, 2019. The orchestra continues with concerts through the end of June. Highlights include a Broadway themed program, Carl Orff’sCarmina Burana and Stravinsky’sFirebird. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's incoming Music Director Gustavo Gimeno will be introduced in the final three concerts of the season. For more information go to: