Springing from the same burst of creativity which yielded Schumann’s majestic piano concerto, his ‘Overture, Scherzo, and Finale Op 52’ is a bird of a very different feather.
He wanted his publisher to present it as his second symphony, thinking its ‘light, pleasant character’ would make it a hit, but the manuscript was sent back. When a rewritten version was performed three years later, the critics were lukewarm, and have been ever since: its Mendelssohnian elements sit agreeably alongside its Schubertian ones, but little of it chimes with what we think of as Schumannesque. Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic turned it into something very engaging, making a virtue of its modest reticence.
Then came the concerto itself, written out of Schumann’s love for Clara Wieck, and for her to play: its understated virtuosity gives full rein to the unaffected appeal it makes to the heart of the listener. Christian Zacharias was the soloist, and from the opening bars we were clearly in safe hands. A cool and limpid statement of the first theme was followed by an affettuoso delivery of the second, then piano and orchestra entered a dialogue marked by an unusually relaxed tenderness; Zacharias judged the difficult acoustic to perfection, producing a sound at once penetrating and intimate. The second-movement duet between piano and woodwind was exquisite, as was the cadenza; the last movement maintained its sense of sweet decorum even during the final joyful canter home.
Yet the reason the hall was full lay in the second half, with what had been billed as wall-to-wall Strauss pere et fils. But this was preceded by Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance in E minor Op 72, in homage to its supreme exponent Sir Charles Mackerras, who died as the Proms were about to open, and who was to have conducted this concert: Sinaisky brought out all its wistful grace. Then the nostalgia-fest began, with the audience bobbing about with the ‘Thunder and Lightning Polka’, swaying to the ‘Blue Danube’, and clapping along with the ‘Radetzky March’. In short, an evening designed for pleasure, and received as such. Even the pre-performance lecture was enjoyable, as Sara Mohr-Pietsch, pianist Lucy Parham, and actor Henry Goodman brought the Robert-and-Clara drama to vivid life.