Australian Youth Orchestra

Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Celebrare celeberrime [UK premiere]
Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Australian Youth Orchestra
Lawrence Foster

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 30 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Australian Youth Orchestra gave an excellent account of itself, allied to an authoritative contribution from Lawrence Foster. He clearly won the players’ trust as a guide – perhaps, even, as a mentor. The young musicians played splendidly for him. In effect, the programme was an exacting ‘concerto for orchestra’ – with lime-lit parts for the usual suspects, but also solo spots for piano, piccolo, bass clarinet, harp, contra-bassoon, bass trombone, tuba and exotic assorted percussion.

Fittingly, the two main works were written when their composers were also young: Brahms 25, Shostakovich 19 – although the printed programme showed a youthful Shostakovich, its Johannes was decidedly portly with receding hair and long white beard. Despite crabbed rumours to the contrary, Brahms was young once!

Carefully, surely, encouragingly and imperturbably, Lawrence Foster extracted performances that met the many technical difficulties head on. All three pieces, for example, demand superb brass playing. We got it. The timpanist was exciting, also exact and accomplished. Strings and woodwind gave much satisfaction.

From his relatively inexperienced players, Lawrence Foster sought to exact straightforward performances of these demanding works. Prudently and solicitously, he took no risks. How intriguing, then, that his soloist was Hélène Grimaud – the wild woman of the piano (visiting from her wolf sanctuary in New York State). As it happens – supreme musician that she is – she put in a performance rather more controlled, though no less impassioned, than the one she gave with the Philharmonia Orchestra in June. Lawrence Foster only looked at her towards the end of solo passages; his prime responsibility lay in supervisory care of the orchestra. Grimaud adapted her playing likewise. They were in accord.

Even so, her performance was unforgettable. If there is something inescapably ‘feminine’ about her playing – and there is – then it is feline. Her first, electrifying entry, played to tempo, was a deeply impassioned utterance whose quiet grandeur soared. The sostenuto of this magnificent, long, arched phrase that never pauses to take breath was a risk. It also lay somewhere between a silken purr and a soft growl – and expressed nevertheless the quintessence of Brahms. Broken phrases slipped into the music like maimed children. She played the slow movement in sublime, calm sorrow, yet – opening the last movement – pounced upon danger with all claws bared. Just before the fugato passage, her few ‘classical’ bars were wittily demure. This is artistry you don’t forget in a hurry.

Carl Vine’s brief Celebrare celeberrime begins in tranquillity reminiscent of Takemitsu, giving the strings a chance to portray a deeply blue, calmly undulating sea. Soon enough, though, we were on hot, dry land, moving into a jaunty sunlit exuberance in which – without the need of empire – it is unlikely that the sun will ever set. With a nod to the Rodeo of Aaron Copland, this was brash, loud and expectant.

“The finale of this little, joyous work is intended to sound precipitous rather than declamatory, hopefully leading the audience on to anything that might follow it,” writes Vine. Did I wish to know that?

Shostakovich’s Symphony No.1 is a tour de force. It is probably the most self-consciously brilliant first symphony ever written. It is perky and quirky – “grotesque” said Shostakovich – some moments, particularly the unexpected opening, confidently played, parade the intimacy of chamber music. The orchestra only offers itself as an ensemble about halfway through the movement. The second movement is either slow with scherzo-like outer sections, or helter-skelter with a trio of repose. The AYO relished the changes in speed and texture. The sustained andante that follows was played with great intensity of execution. However, it didn’t quite catch the composer’s sudden intensity of feeling, but the last movement was utterly brilliant.

For encores we heard ‘Death of Tybalt’ from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet and a rousing version of “Waltzing Matilda”. If it’s not the Australian National Anthem, it should be!

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