Arianne Matiakh lifts the veil of Pierrette

Last week, I logged in to the Naxos Music Library, as I try to do every weekday, and looked through the new releases. I noticed a new recording of The Veil of Pierrette by Ernst von Dohnányi.

The author of an interesting enough Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Dohnányi is perhaps today best known for the Variations on a Nursery Tune, Opus 25. As you might know, I have a tendency not to like any given composer’s greatest hits as much as his more out of the way pieces (please hold off on criticizing my choice pronoun in this sentence).

Long before P. D. Q. Bach, or maybe I should say shortly after, Dohnányi wrote some variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” prefaced by extremely melodramatic music that is said to be Wagnerian, but could be just as at home at the beginning of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor.

I guess I like the concept of theme and variations, but I have a bit of a problem with it, both as a listener and as a composer, and that is an apparent lack of direction. In a sonata form design, the idea that the music of the exposition is going to be repeated after the development as recapitulation with certain prescribed changes is enough to impart the form with a clear sense of direction.

But in variation form, you might find yourself thinking something like: I’ve inverted the theme, cast it into a different meter, tried to make a stretto, what else can I do with it? Maybe put an Alberti bass to it, that might be fun. And then I’ve got all these ideas for variations, but in what order should I put them in?

In the case of music to accompany a theatrical play or a ballet, the story helps provide structure for the music. Dohnányi’s The Veil of Pierrette is a pantomime, which, according to my understanding, is a lot like a ballet, but not quite.

So last week, I decided to give Pierrette a chance. Act I is pleasant enough. Act II begins with a Gsus4 chord that looks more interesting than it sounds. General pause, then the violins play scales in unison. This leads to a wonderfully archetypal Viennese waltz, that is now my favorite composition by Dohnányi.

This waltz, a wedding waltz, was extremely popular in the years after its 1910 premiere performance. Then, the whole pantomime seems to have been forgotten. There wasn’t a recording of any excerpts on CD until 1999.

The recording by the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra seems to be the first recording of all the music for the pantomime. I had to learn more about this music. And then I was surprised to realize that the conductor, Ariane Matiakh, is a woman.

In an ideal world, this wouldn’t surprise me. But we live in a world in which the Wiener Philharmoniker didn’t have any women players until 1997.

As recordings of the Pierrette wedding waltz go, Matiakh’s is the best, in my opinion. In the other recordings, the timpanist seems to have been instructed by the conductor to not be too loud. That misses the point of the composer rhythmically offsetting the timpani, and, um, you know, his fortissimo dynamic marking for the instrument.

The story is said to be inspired by Romeo and Juliet. I’m happy to be as ignorant of the plots of ballets as Bruckner was said to be about the plots of operas. Something or other about star-crossed lovers.

Looking at Matiakh’s discography on her website, you will see recordings of other music by men. But notice that she doesn’t exactly go for the well-known pieces that a lot of male conductors go for.

A conducting schmuck will conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with an amateur orchestra if he can’t do it with a professional orchestra. That sort of thing is, in my opinion, far more selfish than a conductor conducting his own compositions.

Matiakh’s discography includes a good selection of music by women. She joined forces with Ragna Schimer and the Staatskapelle Halle to record Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 7 (much better than her husband’s piano concerto in the same key, I think). That disc also includes Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Opus 58.

Notice also her recordings of the piano concerti by Zara Levina and Johanna Doderer’s Bohinj. Worth checking out.

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