A bit of Bach and a bunch of Brahms…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

July 4, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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A hearty main meal had been prepared for Brahms lovers, but not before Israeli/American pianist, Orli Shaham, had served up a substantial starter of Bach.

Orli Shaham Pic: Christian Steiner

Shaham’s program revealed itself as a clever linking of all the composers on the bill. Bach was idolised by Brahms, who was idolised by Avner Dorman and Brett Dean. I guess you could say that Orli Shaham idolised the lot of them – to have built her recital around them. It should also be said that Brahms idolised Clara Schumann who provided the inspiration for the two sets of piano pieces, Op.118 and Op 119. The Johannes-Clara relationship, which he wanted to consummate but she didn’t, pushed Brahms to express his unanswered passion in some of the richest, romantic piano music ever written.

Many pianists have recorded Bach’s French Suites, so Shaham had plenty of competitors as she opened her recital with French Suite No 6 in E, BWV817. With Bach, you can’t be in both piano camps: the romantics, with plenty of passion and pedal, and the dries (like Glenn Gould) with little or none. Orli Shaham leans more towards Israeli countryman, celebrated pianist Murray Perahia, who believes that J.S. would have encouraged pianists to play according to the tastes of their generation and on contemporary instruments.

Although Shaham demonstrated mechanical mastery over what amounts to eight dance movements, with tonal variety, clear voicing, and occasional sternum-tickling trills, it was too heavy-handed for my liking. This suite gives plenty of opportunities for light-fingered charm, and that didn’t happen. Not everybody would agree with me and I’ll take that one on the chin, but the performance had the feel of an earnest student doing an exam.

Shaham hit her sweet spot with Brahms, quickly established in the opening intermezzo from the Six Piano Pieces Op.118. This meaty, romantic music is well suited to her power and ability to project big, complex sounds. I was especially looking forward to hearing her play the second of the group, Intermezzo Andante teneramente. I knew it intimately, having once played it (badly) myself. Would she scythe through it or linger over its magical romance? She lingered. My heart melted. And so the delight continued to the end of the six pieces, with displays of passion, power and pleading.

What strikes me about these two groups of Brahms pieces, written late in his life, are their melodic lines. In some ways, they beg to be sung – although Johannes didn’t provide us with words. If they were, of course, we’d lose their richly studded sound structure. But you do leave the concert with these tunes singing irresistibly in your head.

After interval, we saw another side of Orli Shaham: at home with a microphone in her hand. She’s done some successful radio work in the US and it showed as she chatted to the audience about the upcoming pieces. The first group was by Avner Dorman, titled After Brahms – Three Intermezzi for piano. Rather than a challenging foray into atonal territory, these three pieces made a worthy postscript to Brahms’ output. Full bodied and satisfying, they took both direct and indirect reference from the Brahms piano pieces. Shaham handed their technical demands with ease, as she did with the entire program. I’ll look forward to hearing them again on record.

David Robertson and Orli Shaham

The last offering was unusual in that it interleaved the four pieces from Brahms Op.119 with three pieces, Hommage a Brahms, by popular Australian composer, Brett Dean. The four Brahms pieces followed on in the style of the Op.118 and were powerfully and sensitively played. The Dean had its merits but was not as easy to like as the Dorman – although my spirits rose over the third of Dean’s offerings – Engelsflugel 2 – that saw Shaham going ten tenths to pass on the excitement. Brahms had the last say with Rhapsodie Allegro risoluto which bought the concert to a resounding close.

Was the interleaving of Brahms and Dean a good idea?  It was like taking alternate sips of old Cognac and then young wine. On balance, I would have preferred them separate, but I respect Shaham’s decision to put them together.

Orli Shaham was not the most exciting pianist I’ve heard at the Sydney Recital Hall, but her program was innovative and she is a Brahms (and followers) champion.

Another of Shaham’s innovations was the use of a score throughout the concert. Not a paper score with a jumpy page-turner, but a foolscap-size computer tablet sitting on the music stand, needing only a dab of the finger to move the display along. Not everybody approves of pianists bringing a score to a performance and I’d agree that it is usually a distraction, but the black bodied tablet almost looked part of the Steinway and soon became virtually invisible.

Orli Shaham, is married to Sydney Symphony Orchestra chief conductor and artistic director, David Robertson. As well as playing, her impressive career spans recording, writing, lecturing and broadcasting. She made her first Sydney appearance in 2003 playing Ravel’s G Major piano concerto and she has appeared with leading orchestras around the world, including the Israel Philharmonic and most of the important orchestras in the US.

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