SSO – Debussy, Brahms…and Carl Vine

August 23, 2012 by J-Wire
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Carl, you’re a star! The world premier of Carl Vine’s second piano concerto, some captivating Debussy and majestic Brahms made for a thoroughly satisfying concert at the Sydney Opera House last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Piers Lane

There is a story that goes with the writing of Carl Vine’s first piano concerto premiered with soloist Michael Kieran Harvey in 1997. Carl sent Michael some early pages and asked him for his opinion. “It’s no good,” Michael said, “I can play it.” After several more deliveries of pages Michael finally said, “Carl, you’re now on the right track. I can’t play it.”

Kieran Harvey gave the first performance and I tried to track down a recording as a background comparison to the second concerto. I was not successful, so I had to go to my seat unprepared – and privately thinking that this could be a jumble of discordant sounds with a piano part thrown into the middle of the mess.

My fears were unfounded. It is a wonderful piece of music and if it ever comes out on record I’ll buy it. The premier owed much of its success to the piano soloist, Australian, Piers Lane, whose powerful technique seems at its best when held in place by collaboration with an orchestra. The first movement is announced by crashing chords from the piano and, from there, the score hardly lets up on the pianist, with the orchestra pausing from time to allow him short cadenzas.

The three movements are named Rhapsody, Nocturne and Cloudless Blue but they don’t follow these descriptions too closely. They often burst into stomach-jumping rhythms, which make great demands on soloist and orchestra alike. The slow movement brings out some gorgeous, lingering harmonies, especially during unusual combinations of instruments such as the  pairing of piano and tuba at the opening.

The third and final movement again has the pianist, the conductor and the orchestra caught up in hopping frenzy, which suddenly melts away into shady poetry.

With all this emotion building, I expected an explosive finish – and got one. A hard working Piers Lane ripped down the keyboard and played his final chord standing up, he was so excited. Carl Vine appeared from the wings and there was a hug fest between conductor Hugh Wolff, Piers Lane and Carl Vine. It was a memorable performance.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Back to the future. The evening began with some delightful Debussy: two movements from Images for orchestra. Conductor Hugh Wolff (born in Paris in 1953 to American parents) immediately established his authority by conducting without a score and directing the orchestra with very precise movements. I imagine this would have inspired confidence in the players.

Although Debussy didn’t have the orchestration skills of Ravel, there was still plenty of French impressionistic colour in these two movements: Gigues and Rondes de printemps. One passage called for the rarely heard oboe d’amore, a double reeded woodwind in the oboe family. Slightly larger than the oboe, it has a plaintive, melancholy sound; a real heart wringer that I look forward to hearing again.

With Carl Vine’s passions and upheavals still in my head, the Brahms second symphony was like getting into a perfectly warmed bath. It is familiar and much loved, although I noted it hadn’t had an outing with the SSO since 2007.

Again Wolff conducted scorelessly, in contrast to the Vine where everybody worked from a score, including the pianist. Wolff placed the tympani at the far left back, while the other boomers, the side drum and tuba, were at the extreme right. Perhaps they’d had a row in the green room during interval and had to be separated.

Apart from some discomfort early on in the brass, the orchestra acquitted itself well in the Brahms second, with a full, balanced sound in this rather enigmatic work where a veneer of major key happiness overlays dark doubts beneath.

The hardest working member of the orchestra had to be the man skilfully blowing the tuba. He featured prominently in every work and would have gone home with sore lips and tired cheeks.


One Response to “SSO – Debussy, Brahms…and Carl Vine”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    Not to forget that on their recent visit here Berlin Phil also played Brahms 2nd Symphony – with a bit of excessive bravado, I believe -.
    I may be wrong , but it seems that in his symphonies except the 1st, Brahms draws a seriously pensive mood, something found a bit later in ample form at Mahler., strangely enough less ih his own 1st.
    Brahms’ 2nd , in particular, has little joy to convey, not that beauty can only be found in jovial musings.

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