Piano and passion aplenty – an SSO review

August 2, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Brahms, Dvorak and Rachmaninoff provided some of their most stirring music for the SSO to play last night as part of the Ausgrid Master Series, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.


Nicholas Angelich

Rather than begin proceedings with the Dvorak overture, the program opened with Brahms’ first piano concerto, featuring US pianist Nicholas Angelich. This proved to be quite a contrast in style to the lusty rendition of the Brahms second concerto we’d heard earlier in the year. Although Angelich displayed a mighty technique when called for, it was his quieter, more introspective passages that brought forth the magic. The slow movement was played to a hushed audience who were clearly captivated by his phrasing and willingness to withdraw into pianissimo even when he had a full house of ears to reach.

It is difficult to imagine why this concerto was so poorly received on debut. It was Brahms’s first major orchestral work and the Leipzig crowd didn’t like it. Fortunately, that is no longer the case because it is now an oft-repeated favourite.

The work is far more substantial than providing an orchestral backdrop for a solo pianist. Its symphonic proportions are established early in the first movement. The pianist must patiently sit and wait for his eventual jowl-shaking entry of tremolos and trills.

Angelich was good to watch as well as listen to. His twitches, mutterings and flourishes all fitted nicely with the score. A man of substantial proportions, he appeared to live the music as well as play it.

The orchestra returned for the second half augmented by a couple of harps, piano and an alto saxophone – readying themselves for the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances. But we had Dvorak’s Carnival Overture to get through first.

Apparently, this piece was inspired by nature but I saw it equally valid as incidental music to a downhill ski race, as the orchestra took off in furious free-fall, whipped along by conductor Jakub Hrusa. He was visually very entertaining too, looking at times as though he was doing a punishing calisthenics workout in the gym. His enthusiasm was infectious for the orchestra and the audience alike.

Jakob Hrusa

The ski race levelled off in the middle when we were treated to a slow up and some exquisite solo passages from concertmaster, Natalie Chee. Then we were off again down the black diamond run which, at times, seemed to find the orchestra in danger of toppling over itself until, with a stupendous series of sonic crashes and athletic leaps from maestro Hrusa, it was done.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic dances are among my favourite orchestral pieces. The three movements distil the essence of Rachmaninoff:  complex and demanding rhythms, rich harmonies that go to the edge of atonalism, switches from major to minor keys and quotations from Russian Orthodox chant. And there is something else that Rachmaninoff offers that is beyond musical analysis: a direct path to the emotions, especially the feeling of foreboding.

The first movement relies on the woodwinds to announce many of the themes, one of which gives voice to the alto saxophone. The effect is certainly bewitching, but all to brief as the instrument is then left unblown for the rest of the piece.

Fraser Beath McEwing

If you insist on this being a dance composition, you could take your partner for a waltz in the middle movement but it is anything but happy.

The harmonies are twisted and tormented even though the three-four timing is maintained.

Originally called ‘midnight’ by Rachmaninoff, the third and final movement is complex in structure with compelling surprises. There is one string passage towards the end that draws forgiveness and redemption up from earlier despair and, to me, is the climax of the whole piece.

Jakub Hrusa was an excellent choice of conductor for this concert. He is young, enthusiastic, a pleasing showman and a thoughtful musician. Gramophone Magazine quoted him as one of ten young conductors ‘on the verge of greatness’.  He holds simultaneous orchestral postings in Europe, the UK and Japan. He first visited Australia in 2009, but this is his debut conducting the SSO.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.


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