The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s “Homelands” concert, under the directorship of Principal Guest Conductor Xian Zhang, opened with an ebullient reading of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. The celebratory tone, which captured so well the aristocratic grandeur of this dance, was initiated by a blazing brass fanfare, one that vividly recalls the opening of Tchaikovsky’s just-completed Symphony No 4. A warm melancholy-tinged lyricism from the cello section, complemented by the euphonious woodwind characterised the contrasting central section. With the MSO in such fine form, the concert was off to a great start.
No doubt many of the audience tonight had been attracted by the opportunity to hear the mighty “Rach 3”. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor is a much-storied work, one whose star-studded reference exponents have included Horowitz, Argerich, Van Cliburn, and of course the composer himself. More recently, 18-year-old South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim’s electrifying account at the final of the 2022 Van Cliburn competition unexpectedly established his place amongst this distinguished pianistic firmament, ushering in perhaps, a new era of interpretations of this gargantuan work.
Tonight’s performer was the well-credentialed and Grammy-nominated Joyce Yang, also a laureate of the Van Cliburn competition (2005), where she gave a riveting account of Australian composer Carl Vine’s now-omnipresent Piano Sonata No 1. As one might expect, Yang was compelling. From the liquid tone of the unadorned and unpretentious piano entry through to the dazzling muscularity of her rich-toned first movement “ossia” cadenza, this was an enthralling account. Yang’s playing, particularly in the extravagant cadenza was characterised by an unerring sense of line and flawless technique. And she seemed to have no difficulty in cutting through the opulent orchestral textures – no easy feat in this richly-scored work. The second movement revealed a potent delicacy of touch, and crystal clear rapid-fire repeated notes. And the sparkling finale, seamlessly well-paced and ever in control, brought the work to an appropriately barn-storming conclusion, with ensemble between soloist and orchestra taut throughout. A fully-deserved standing ovation, elicited an effervescent encore of Rachmaninov’s G sharp minor Prelude, replete with beguiling inner melodies, garlanded by a refined rubato.
After interval came three of Bedrich Smetana’s six independently-composed, nationalist tone-poems, each composed in the 1870s, that ultimately came to comprise Má Vlast. Within each tone poem lies an evocation of Czech legend, or of the Bohemian countryside. The MSO opened with Vltava (The Moldau), one of Smetana best known works, which depicts the course of the Czech Republic’s longest river. Under the disciplined direction of Zhang, the orchestra perfectly captured its bucolic character, opening with a gently undulating pair of flutes, evincing more a babbling brook-like source, than the mighty river that it will soon become. This opened out into perhaps Smetana’s most famous melody, and something of an unofficial Czech national anthem, sumptuously delivered by the MSO strings. Pastoral harps, festive hunting horns, and dancing strings further contributed to the rustic air as a peasant gathering celebrating a wedding appeared at the side of the river.
Blaník, with its overtones of Wagner and with just a hint of (the much later) Elgar, depicts a mountain closely associated with various legends of knights defending the motherland. The idyllic central episode was the highlight here, characterised by mellifluous woodwind dialogues that blended geniality with a sense of time standing still.
Sárka, Smetana’s depiction of the ghoulish pagan legend concerning a league of women determined to rebel against male tyranny, opened with the boldly defiant angularity of the upper strings. David Thomas’s haunting clarinet solos, preempting the imminent slaughter of the drugged male gathering, were a highlight, before Zhang’s tautly controlled final tutti outburst brought the concert to a resounding close.
Glenn Riddle reviewed “Homelands – Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Smetana” presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne on September 15, 2023.