“Selected” movements from Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen opened this concert featuring Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s “shining strings”. Alas, we were not enlightened regarding which ones were selected; Concertmaster Dale Barltrop in his program note tells us only that the suite was made up of movements that were his own “personal favourites”. During the first piece I must say that Mantovani and his orchestra came to my mind, as we heard such a rich and full blooming sound from a strings-only band. As now it seems de rigueur to have the upper string players standing rather than seated for Baroque performance, I had anticipated and hoped for a real Baroque snappiness in the sound. The sight of a brilliantly red open harpsichord at the rear of the ensemble also held promise of a stylish Baroque twang, but in fact not one tinkle from John O’Donnell’s splendid-looking continuo harpsichord could be heard.
What we did hear was a good-sized string ensemble play Purcell’s dance movements and interludes extremely well, with antiphonal passages here and there providing the occasional change of texture, and some lovely solo moments from the first violin and first viola. The ensemble played with modest ornamentation, the sound settling in happily between the glittery sound world of the “pure” Baroque and Elgar. Three double basses powering along in the back corner in front of reflecting walls made for a rather bottom-heavy overall sound, but perhaps that was useful in the lovely final Chaconne, with its repeated bass line.
Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations, comprising nine of Rimbaud’s prose poems, was written for soprano or tenor and string orchestra in 1939. On this occasion the dramatic opening vocal declamation seemed to come from somewhere behind the orchestra. We soon realised however that it was more specifically from the double bass section. Regular MSO bassist Stephen Newton, waving his bow as he deserted his instrument, then began a circular peregrination around the perimeter of the orchestra – singing each movement’s solo from a different position on the stage. A new and theatrical meaning was being given to the title “a song cycle”!
Moving somewhat erratically, on occasions a little like Chaplin or Mr Bean, he teased, harangued and urged us to observe the “savage parade” of nine vividly coloured, exotic dream-world prose poems. And what images Rimbaud provides for a musician! Britten’s ever-inventive and daring accompaniment was given its full due. Cellos became zithers when necessary, and crimson, russet, opaline, copper and silver colours sparkled before us.
As the orchestra worked its magic Stephen Newton stalked the outskirts and engaged individual members of the orchestra most intriguingly as he sang – at one stage even gazing longingly at leader Dale Barltrop. For what reason we did not know because, as before, we had no listing of movements or the texts of the poems in the program – nothing that might have cued us even a little into the mood or the subject matter of the song. It felt such a serious omission not to have the texts, one that lessens considerably our appreciation of the musicians’ hard work.
Stephen Newton’s voice is a pleasant, accurate and flexible tenor, and there were moments of highly convincing theatricality, and emotional outbursts with real effort put into his articulation. However, it was only when he was singing directly to us from the centre of the platform that there was a fully resonant balance between voice and orchestra. While he was cheekily ducking in among the players, turning to sing across the stage, or lurking in a corner of the stage, the wondrously evocative text – so full of exciting imagery and colour – lost some of its energy and focus when heard against the thirty or so players. At the end, he crept off to the doleful dying strings, but his re-appearance brought rousing and well-deserved cheers for his performance.
Discreetly but masterfully led from the first desk by Dale Barltrop, the orchestra after interval took us on an exciting journey through Ravel’s early and only String Quartet, in an adaptation for string orchestra by Gail Aitken, principal second violin of the Queensland Symphony. Barltrop noted that he had always been “fascinated by the quartet’s compositional ingenuity and gorgeous tapestry of tonal colours”. In his spoken introduction he said that he was sure the adaptation to a larger orchestral force successfully amplified its gorgeous colours. I can happily say that this proved to be the case. The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall’s superb acoustic gave the second movement’s many rhythmic Spanish-style pizzicatos an exciting quality, and enhanced the third’s quietly lush harmonic progressions and its tender melodies. Soulful solo viola and cello recitatives were beautifully realised. The final movement’s full and rather violent outburst of an opening led to a whirlwind of virtuosity from all players. Demanding soloistic technical challenges were excitingly met and the piece ended with a great sense of joy and celebration.
Now MSO, can we please have some concert programs with notes to help us listen to these terrific performances a bit more meaningfully!
Bruce Macrae reviewed “Shining Strings” performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on July 23, 2022.