Prom 40: Transcriptions and Concertos

Janacek arr. Tognetti
String Quartet No.1 ’The Kreutzer Sonata’
Sculthorpe
Nourlangie
Walton
Sonata for Strings (from String Quartet in A minor)
Shostakovich
Concerto in C minor for piano, trumpet and strings

John Williams (guitar)
Olli Mustonen (piano)
Alison Balsom (trumpet)

Australian Chamber OrchestraRichard Tognetti (violin)


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 19 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

If the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s first appearance at the Proms last week found them technically unfazed by the English pastoral tradition, their emphatic, virile style of delivery seemed slightly beside the point. Resplendent in black, purple and red, the ensemble took to the stage tonight with a programme ideally suited to them. Unfortunately the house was barely a quarter full.

Each half began with a transmogrified string quartet, the Janacek transcription being the work of Richard Tognetti himself whereas the Walton was arranged by the composer with some help from Malcolm Arnold. Surprisingly perhaps, both pieces work well in their newer guises, retaining a degree of intimacy through solo writing which may not have communicated itself too well to those in the cheaper seats. A native quartet might have made Janacek’s score seem yet more lyrical, but it could scarcely have been despatched with greater commitment. The Sonata for Strings also struck sparks and only the ambience of the hall prevented its finer contrapuntal points from registering cleanly. The slow movement had passion and sensitivity in spades, complemented by the maximal rhythmic bounce of the finale.

Peter Sculthorpe’s Nourlangie must have been new to many Prommers and it made a real impact despite its abrupt switches of mood from luminous ’New Agey’ accessibility to Aboriginal quasi-minimalist murk. Its thinnest passages consisted of little more than guitar figuration and synchronised (or, in this instance, not quite synchronised) percussive tapping, but for the most part the parade of essentially static, illustrative blocks proves strangely evocative in live performance. A thunder sheet, a local dance song and some extended playing techniques (string slides simulating bird cries) are among the resources deployed. Inspired by an enormous rock of the same name in the Kakadu National Park, this is a response to nature which, while musically very different from Messiaen’s, has some of the same sense of spontaneity and wonder. It is not in any sense a guitar concerto.

By contrast, the Shostakovich emerged unambiguously as that composer’s First Piano Concerto, whatever the title supplied in the programme booklet – a showcase for Olli Mustonen, equally active nowadays as composer and conductor. There is always a risk that Mustonen’s brittle keyboard pyrotechnics will seem external to the substance of the music he plays, but this quixotic concerto lends itself to all manner of approaches. With Alison Balsom (uncomfortably?) cast in the role of straight man, or rather woman, Mustonen challenged preconceptions with his stabbing, marcato style, only rarely demonstrating the exquisite finesse of which he is also capable. Fully prepared to sacrifice the composer’s melodic line to his own wilder flights of fancy – literally so in that he lifts his hands so high above the keyboard that one marvels that he can ever find the right notes, he is at least never, ever boring. A provocative end to a stimulating concert that really belonged in a smaller, cooler venue.

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