The Russian boys get together: a music review

March 2, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The APT Master Series opened its SSO 2017 season at the Sydney Opera House with a cleverly conceived and superbly executed concert dominated by Russians…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.The program concentrated on supremely talented Russian youth, with Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s first symphonies, and Rachmaninov’s first piano concerto. And to top it off, the Rachmaninov soloist was Russian Daniil Trifonov who, at 25, is a rocketing star among young pianists. The only odd man out was Spanish conductor, Gustavo Gimeno, but he got his Russian visa for youth, passion and conducting technique which manifested in some very fine playing by the SSO.

Gustavo Gimeno

Like the two other works on the program, Sergei Prokofiev Symphony No.1 in D, was his first in that genre, but he’d already established himself as composer in other musical forms with 24 preceding opus numbers. At age 25, he decided to write a symphony that Haydn may have written had he been alive in 1917. He called it the Classical Symphony and broke with his usual method by composing it away from his piano. The result is a witty and tuneful work, contained in a classical framework that captures the spirit of Haydn, but infuses it with the style of Prokofiev’s period. It calls for a modest orchestra, (bull fiddle count: four) again in keeping with Haydn’s era.

Tall, long-striding and topped by an impressive black coiffure, Gustavo Gimeno immediately established himself as a conductor of precision and control in the Prokofiev. Maybe his background as a percussionist with the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam had heightened his awareness of pinpoint timing, but his directions to the players were as clear as I’ve seen in any conductor.

With the Prokofiev over in 15 minutes, the Steinway Model D was wheeled into front-centre and the orchestra took on additional instruments in most departments. The bull fiddle count hit six. With the house lights dimmed, Daniil Trifonov, also tall and topped with abundant dark hair and a fashionable five o’clock shadow, led Gimeno on to the stage to play the Rachmaninov first piano concerto. By the enthusiasm of the audience welcome, Trifonov’s was a keenly anticipated arrival.

Daniil Trifonov

Like the Shostakovich first symphony, Rachmaninov’s first piano concerto was a conservatory graduation piece. Written in 1892 it was dashed off in something of a hurry. Rachmaninov always liked the work but saw immature flaws in it which led him to revise it in 1917. While it has never had the popular appeal of the second or third concertos, the first has a unique youthful energy as well as spilling over the edges with Russian romanticism. Like most of Rachmaninov’s piano music, the technical demands of the first piano concerto are considerable.

Trifonov’s handling of the concerto was exhilarating. Technically, he is up there with the best the world has to offer, but what made this performance so good was his interpretation. It was lush, rich, often contemplative, and always with an invisible Rachmaninov watching over him. Trifonov has the special ability to combine power with tenderness and clarity. He is appealing to watch too, often hunched over the keys in absolute concentration, he treats the piano with respect, unlike many prominent pianists who like to give the impression that they are not really going at ten tenths. I’m looking forward to hearing his solo concert next week in the Sydney Recital Hall.

The contribution made to the performance by the SSO and conductor was on the same level as the soloist as they dispatched the clangour and the poetry with equal skill.

The Shostakovich Symphony number one, and last on the program, was also a product of conservatory study, this time in Leningrad. Shostakovich was just 19 years old when he wrote it (first as a piano duet) and he would go on to compose no less than 14 more symphonies. Of the three ‘firsts’ on the program, this is probably the most remarkable in its maturity and inventiveness. After its premier in 1926 It immediately elevated the composer to international status. Subsequently criticised for its ‘overloaded harmonies’ stemming, perhaps from his early money-earning gigs as a silent movie pianist, there are times when the music suggests movie action, sometimes humorous, and yet at other times it is sweeping, grand and dauntingly dramatic.

When the symphony begins, the listener is presented with seemingly unrelated fragments, almost like a jigsaw, until they come together in definable musical shapes. My favourite is the third movement where the oboe heads up an idyllic landscape.

The 30-minute Symphony I is full of surprises, whether it be a sudden brilliant intervention from the piano, or blast from the brass, an impassioned cello solo or a solo comment from the first violin. The plot always moves forward until it hits a magnificent, fireworks finish.

SSO Opera House concert 1 March 2017

The concert will repeated on March 3 and 4.










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