Russian Here and Russian There

November 22, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky shared the billing to a capacity Sydney Opera House in the last of the Ausgrid Master Series for 2012, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Although Rachmaninoff’s fourth piano concerto in G minor is the least played of the popular four, the version presented at this Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert had never been performed in Australia before. Sydney piano teacher, performer and musicologist, Scott Davie, brought the original score to light after carrying out an intensive post graduate study on it – along with Rachmaninoff’s music in general. To complete a logical cycle, he appeared as soloist playing it with the SSO conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The concerto had a troubled history. Ten years elapsed between its commencement and completion. Rachmaninoff revised it at least three times, always taking out bars rather than adding them. Going back to the original, especially if you have become used to the final version, brings some surprises. There are passages of rushing atonality and difficult dialogues between soloist and orchestral ensembles. And it is quite a bit longer. While this does not make for easier listening, it certainly is more exciting than the established version and anybody who loves Rachmaninoff should hear it.

Scott Davie

Scott Davie obviously knows the work well and he handled its continual technical demands with assurance. But the sound of the piano became woven into that of the orchestra. It never really broke loose to claim its position on the throne of the piece. And whose fault was that? Maybe Ashkenazy didn’t get the balance right (something I always praise him for) or Davie didn’t enunciate the sparkle with enough force or my hearing was jaundiced. But I came away a little disappointed.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, by contrast, left no sliver of drama or excitement unexplored. As an SSO violinist told me later over coffee: “we are familiar with this piece because we took it with us on tour so it doesn’t take long to get back into it. But playing it under Ashkenazy takes it up to another level. He’s inspirational.”

The Manfred Symphony is unapologetically program music but, in this case, of the highest order. The four movements mostly follow the Manfred poem by Byron, except that Tchaikovsky decided on a happier ending than that presented by Byron.

Composer, Mily Balakirev, nagged Tchaikovsky into writing the Symphony after Berlioz reneged because of ill health. Balakirev, incidentally, is credited with writing the most difficult to play piano piece of all time: ‘Islamey’.

Tchaikovsky, who was quite comfortable writing program music, became enthusiastic about his Manfred Symphony once he had made a start. Although he broadly followed the scenery and action of the poem, he set it in a classic symphonic structure. The result is a highly entertaining major work with all the Tchaikovsky hallmarks. There are vast waves of strings all playing the same melody; there are heart-wringing solos from woodwinds; there are blasts from the brass that could crack concrete and when an explosion is really called for, no less than six percussionists are on hand to set it off. And on the left of the platform two golden harps tickle into sounds of cascading water as Manfred takes in the pastoral part of his journey. Then, towards the end of the fourth movement, when you think that every sound has been exploited, the opera house organ fires up and makes deep, gorgeous comments.

I have a great affection for this instrument – the biggest mechanical organ in the world. If I’d been around at the time I would have suggested to Pyotr that he give it a longer part to play in the Manfred, but alas, too late. Next year, Saint-Saens organ symphony will again awaken this wonderful monster – to my great joy.

Back to Manfred. This was quite a workout for orchestra and conductor. There are a lot of tricky passages calling for pinpoint accuracy but the orchestra never faltered, especially bearing in mind that you could hardly fit another instrument on the platform and most of them were busy for most of the time. Members of the SSO would have gone home tired but happy after a big night at the office. As for Vladimir, conductors don’t come any better.

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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