Starting promptly at 8pm, the “Rach 3” concert was heralded by the entrance of Sir Andrew Davis to the stage, and the excitement in Hamer Hall was evident. Although everyone was looking forward to the concerto, the concert started with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dubinushka, a short overture yet grand, an overture which was perfect in regards to the rest of the program. It featured the importance of orchestral unity, in this instance the brass and strings sections. The overall style of a dignified march was consistent until the end, contrasted in the middle section when the strings took over from the dominating brass opening – a change of colour and tonality. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra had started the evening well.
As the concert progressed, the soloist Kirill Gerstein made his appearance to play Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It started with a very simple piano tune in D minor, with the orchestra’s role as an accompaniment at this stage. From the very beginning, it was obvious that Gerstein had true mastery of his instrument, allowing the listeners to really understand what was being played. From the very colourful but simple opening, Gerstein contrasted one phrase to the next, making sure that each time the same figure returned, a different meaning was there.
The tempo was set up well by the conductor, with the speed accelerating later as the pianist had more to do. It was at times a little difficult perhaps to hear clear details of the piano, as the orchestra had a rich and full sound – and a big venue like Hamer Hall affects the sound balance. However, that being said, Gerstein displayed a great understanding of warm qualities of sound, projecting quite well above the orchestra. As the work progressed to the end of the first movement, intensity was always driven by the orchestra, not only acting as an “accompanist”, but supporting the soloist and also allowing the piano to speak out.
The Ossia cadenza (alternative passage), was executed superbly, with listeners impressed by Gerstein’s flawless technique. Climaxes were grand, however in some cases could have been started from the lower dynamic range, as often in a difficult and long piece like Rach 3, it is important to find the capacity to be exciting, yet musical, expressive and also melancholic and calm at times. At the conclusion of the first movement, the audience reacted appropriately by not applauding but what we got instead was half of the house coughing after waiting for the whole movement!
In music the term “melting moments” is rather a very special one, and it was indeed apparent especially in the second movement. The lovely introduction featured mainly strings which had a great sense of tone and warmth, projecting differently as the strings were muted (or con sordino). Merging from the orchestral opening, Gerstein’s solo blended nicely with the sounds of the muted strings. From a very emotional movement, with many climactic sections there was a jump near to the end with what I’d like to call the “cat & mouse” section. In this very fast and rapid section, accompanied by the woodwinds and strings pizzicato, Gerstein’s piano flowed along through to the last movement, with a similar intensity and rhythmic drive to the first movement. The very fast tempo in this notoriously difficult movement left the audience breathless until the very last bar. Although at times maybe a tad too much rubato was used, this interspersed with the rhythmic synchronisation between the piano and the orchestra, but was nevertheless always exciting. At the very conclusion of the concerto the performers received a semi-house standing ovation. A very impressive performance deserved nothing less.
Then there was an encore! After walking in and out of the hall several times, Gerstein performed Rachmaninov’s Melodie Op.3 No.3, a stunningly beautiful creation highlighting the importance of having “contrasts” in music. It reminded us of the beauty of music after the marathon that was the Rach 3. I would describe pianist Kirill Gerstein as “dignified, youthful, full of character … turning the Steinway Concert Grand into his own home”.
The second half of the concert focused on the orchestra itself, this time with Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. The concertmaster Dale Barltrop was featured in this work, allowing the audience to go home not only to talk about what we experienced from the piano but also from his violin playing. Very often in this piece it sounded like the great theme song from Star Wars with incredible swells and pauses before climaxes, with an outstanding horn section and the greater woodwind & brass sections. Although there are six contrasting movements in total, energy was always maintained. This piece demonstrated what it really means for an orchestra to have a single purpose, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis deserved nothing less than for us to say, that they are one great family.