Sydney Symphony/Ashkenazy

Der Rosenkavalier – Suite [attrib. Rodziński]
Piano Concerto in G
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.43 (The Divine Poem)

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Sydney Symphony
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 24 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Vladimir Ashkenazy. ©Decca/Jim SteereAs part of its European tour, which has so far taken in the Stresa and Lucerne festivals, the Sydney Symphony made a welcome visit to the Proms with Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor, Vladimir Ashkenazy.

It was a shame that something home-grown could not have been chosen for this Prom, for Ross Edwards’s Maninyas (a violin concerto), Peter Sculthorpe’s Memento Mori and Matthew Hindson’s Energy are being played on this tour, all three at the Edinburgh International Festival in the SS’s two concerts there (on 1 & 2 September).

Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” is most one of the most popular of his pieces. The waltzes from it were quickly extracted into a concert suite – one set, by Otto Singer, was arranged before the opera’s premiere! Strauss didn’t like Singer’s arrangement – he considered it badly constructed – and made his own concert-version of the waltzes. The Suite was made in 1945, probably by conductor Artur Rodziński and equally probably without the blessing of the composer.

The Sydney Symphony got off to a rocky start, lacking in colour and contrast. However, by the time the big waltz from Act Two had arrived the orchestra had settled down, demonstrating that it is not only in Vienna that a good dancing rubato can be achieved. A full-bodied and well-toned string section, equal to the brass and wind (partly because the latter seems noticeably weak), took control of the Act Three ‘Trio’ that led effortlessly into a rousing recapitulation of the waltz. The orchestra had at last found its collective feet.

Hélène GrimaudA concerto should be “light-hearted and brilliant” said Ravel in a publication published by Calvocoressi just as the G major Piano Concerto approached completion. It has a solo part that, despite much practise, the composer was unable to play. Hélène Grimaud had technique enough to spare as she rapped off the opening Allegramente with effortless precision, keenly observing the composer’s markings. Ashkenazy made the orchestra shine, bringing to the fore parts (most notably percussion) that are often unheard. The slow movement fared less well, Grimaud making heavy weather of the unaccompanied opening; the melody in the right-hand often fractionally behind the left-hand ostinato. Simplicity is essential to this movement for pianists tend to accentuate its inbuilt sentimentality. The strings, praised in the Strauss for their strength of tone, were a little too forthright now, at times overpowering the wind and, in particular, the beautifully mellow cor anglais solo played, with great feeling, by Alexandre Oguey. The finale sparkled effervescently at a clear and unambiguous presto up to the second subject’s trotting trumpets and horns, where it slowed unnecessarily. Grimaud’s further change of speed (increased this time) for her semiquaver runs did not phase the SSO’s principal bassoon, Matthew Wilkie, whose deft imitation was pulled off with great aplomb. A mixed bag of a performance though, often too much at odds with the written intentions of the composer.

Scriabin’s Third Symphony, entitled ‘The Divine Poem’, is a large-scale work in four sections played without a pause. In the original programme-notes for the premiere Scriabin noted that the symphony “represents the growth of the human spirit as it is freed from legends and mysteries, passes through pantheism, and ultimately affirms its liberty and unity with the universe.” With such ambitious intentions there is little wonder at the large orchestra the composer uses – more for combined sound than for variety of instrumental colour as was more common with his Russian contemporaries. The SS’s powerful and rounded brass was strident where necessary and supportive throughout, reflecting the undertones of Liszt and Wagner who are never far away. The music’s changing moods were skilfully portrayed by the SSO, its members clearly enjoying playing this rich and exciting piece conducted by a musician who has done so much for Scriabin’s cause.

As an encore, the SSO delighted with Elgar’s charming Chanson de matin. Ashkenazy’s careful attention to the detailed and many changes of speed and dynamic made this performance a pleasure. The Sydney Symphony continues its tour with visits to Germany and to Amsterdam before the Edinburgh Festival appearances.

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