This popular concert by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was as much a showpiece for the orchestra as for the soloist. The audience was able to revel unashamedly in a program of Russian music, with every item exploiting the now-great acoustics of Hamer Hall.
The Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla is as overblown as the plot of the opera, featuring as it does sorcery, abduction, giants, rivalry – and, of course, the triumph of true love. Conductor Andrew Litton achieved a bold, concerted attack from the orchestra from the outset. The strings were very precise, even at speed, and there was an impressive complement of brass players that never overwhelmed the music. At less than ten minutes the work was all too short.
The orchestra reconfigured in preparation for the main work of the program, in which pianist Stephen Hough joined the MSO for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.2 in G, Op.44. Among his award-winning performances, Hough has recorded the four Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under the baton of tonight’s conductor Andrew Litton – so his credentials for Russian music were beyond doubt.
However, audiences in Australia have very satisfying memories of the pianist’s musical partnership with cellist Steven Isserlis – so this was clearly going to be a very different listening experience. And yet, although there were moments of great brilliance, Hough’s greatest contribution to this performance was his musicality and understanding of the soul of the work. This was most evident, as you would expect, in the second movement, andante non troppo, but also shone through the showiness of the concerto Tchaikovsky wrote to honour the virtuoso pianist Nikolai Rubenstein. Interestingly, Rubenstein had been quite critical of the first piano concerto, although today’s audience would know it better than the one played tonight.
Both concertos share sparking runs, rich two-hand chords and expressive, lyrical passages. These were enhanced by the prominence given to solo violin (Wilma Smith) and solo cello (David Berlin), an unusual aspect of the work that made it seem at times like a triple concerto. Hough’s experience of chamber music allowed him to share the spotlight graciously, but his was the achievement of carrying the concerto through into its third movement and triumphant ending.There was enthusiastic applause for the soloist (who obliged with an encore) but also for the orchestra’s performance of this demanding work – and for Litton, who had kept the excessively romantic work in check throughout.
Prokofiev’s Symphony No.7 in C minor presented a different challenge for the musicians, that of winning the audience over despite the work’s more subtle appeal. Instead of Tchaikovsky’s feelings laid bare, there was insight into Prokofiev’s troubled vision, with his personal circumstances difficult at the very least.
Yet, from a bleak beginning – unison, in a minor key – the symphony did draw the listener into Prokofiev’s world. Even in the first movement, the basses introduced a subject that was grand but not grim, thanks partly to a change to the major key. The allegretto seemed to introduce a lighter mood, with its dance-like rhythm, although it was made more cumbersome by the heavy brass, including the tuba. Winds joined the brass to carry the tune, underpinned by the strings, until the final circus-like part of the movement.
In the contrasting andante expressivo the lower strings led with a plaintive, romantic theme, picked up by bassoon then flute, with some strange harmonic colour at times. This was, after all, a 20th century work, not to be compared with Tchaikovsky’s excessive romanticism. The final, Vivace, called for some very fast bowing and plenty of sparkling percussion, again recalling a circus atmosphere. Then there was a bigger sweep of sound, slower and more reflective before a “tinkling bell” motif and a more reflective ending than audiences expect from a symphony. The performance was a triumph for Litton and the orchestra – sadly it was spoilt at the end by an untimely cough!
The writer first reviewed this concert for artsHub at Hamer Hall, Melbourne on September 14, 2012