Controversy over Haydn and magic with Schumann

I’m just back from the first rehearsal for our upcoming SMP concert. As regular readers will remember, we concluded our last concert with a performance of Mozart’s last symphony, which is a work I absolutely adore with all my heart. It is a piece whose title alone conjures up the very notion of a monument of human achievement.

By comparison, it would seem that the final work on this program is altogether less glamorous- Haydn’s Symphony no. 101. Now, I know that those of you who haven’t seen the Haydn light will think I’ve skated right off the rink…. Remember, I love the Jupiter, really love it, and have spent years studying it and trying to come to grips with its challenges and mysteries. Nonetheless, I think it is altogether possible that Haydn 101 is a better piece than Mozart 41….


I realize that it is essentially ludicrous to try to rank one great piece as better than another, so lets simply say that the Haydn is every bit as good as Mozart 41, which is probably Mozart’s greatest symphony (although the last four Mozart’s are all equally wonderful in different ways, especially since it is ludicrous to rank one great piece as better than another). If we were to say, just to make people mad, that Haydn 101 is better than Mozart 41, we might then go that one bit farther and recognize that it’s not like it is better than any of the other Haydn’s I’ve done. Yes, the finale of Mozart 41 is like nothing else ever written, but the real miracle of that finale is the dissonant episode in the recap and the super fugato in the coda. The first mvt of Haydn 101 is in every way a more sophisticated and varied piece than the first movement of the Mozart, Haydn’s “clock” variations are just off the charts in their mixture of wit, feeling and soul, and the minuet is maybe the best in any classical symphony (I say that until I look at another Haydn symphony)… There are 104 Haydn’s and I wouldn’t be suprised if 40-60 of them were as good in their own way as Mozart 41 (which I love!)…..

Also on the program is the Schumann  Piano Concerto. I must have played the Schumann in orchestra 100 times, and played the first movement with student soloists 200 times. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard it in concerts. I’ve conducted it once, and done the first movement with student soloists twice, but that’s all.

One reason this Schumann gets done so often is that it is quite technically accessible for any orchestra. How sad, then, that I have hardly ever heard or played in a really satisfying orchestral performance of the piece. It is so rare for the first movement to really have the infinite range of subtle earth tones to really capture Schumann’s dreamy, rhapsodic world, rarer still for the Intermezzo to be played with anywhere near enough charm or to be done with the cellos singing, but not bellowing the second theme. And the finale- the poor hemiola theme….. Did Schumann know how badly conductors and orchestras would massacre that elegant and sublime music? What should sound like Fred Astaire dancing on a could of perfume too often gets played like drunken soldiers stumbling back to barracks after one too many. Any beast with a metronome can learn Rite of Spring, but the Schumann concerti (piano, violin and cello) are really hard.

One exception was a performance I played in with Ivan Moravec many years ago. I’d never heard of Ivan Moravec, which is quite sad considering I should have known who he was, but I don’t think anyone in the band knew who he was.

The rehearsal began and this older, professor-ly gentleman (several musicians had mistaken him for the piano technician) gave maestro a gentle smile and we began. Schumann’s bracing opening, which is usually played as violent outburst, without shape or direction, already revealed un-dreamt-of layers of color and texture, and by the second piano entrance after the little woodwind chorale, we were all starting to recognize that we were in the presence of a very special musician. A musician who had that rare power to take other musicians, very good ones, beyond their usual limits and habits.

That afternoon with Moravec was something altogether different- not only did he play beautifully, but maestro and we in the orchestra absolutely outdid ourselves. We played from beginning to end  as if weightless, as if Hiro Nakamura himself had stopped time and given us a frozen moment to hear this music as if played in a totally silent world. One felt incapable of playing out of tune or out of time. One felt as if the music was in touch with something beyond what was happening in that room on that day.

Twenty-three minutes later, we played the last note, and maestro looked at Moravec and asked him if there was anything he’d like to do. Moravec smiled, well, half-smiled, again and got up, shook the leader’s hand and left.

Now that’s what I call a rehearsal.

Here is a short documentary on Ivan Moravec on YouTube

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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