It is always a joy to return to the Melbourne Town Hall to hear the Melbourne Symphony, especially to hear such a late nineteenth-century focused program that seem so concordant with the Town Hall’s imposing Victorian architecture. Whatever the acoustic foibles of our grand Swanston Street dame, there is always a sense of splendor and occasion whenever the MSO returns to its former home base.
The program opened with the Suite No.1 from Bizet’s Carmen. With a clear authoritative baton, conductor Benjamin Northey enticed a richly varied and nuanced reading from the MSO. Shimmering string tremolandi opened proceedings, quickly followed by a razor-sharp, yet nonetheless lyrical brass choir. Northey then enticed seductive solos from the woodwinds, all the while perfectly capturing the Iberian atmosphere that imbues this operatic score. This was a thoroughly enjoyable reading that culminated in the foot-tapping romp that is Les Toreadors.
Then came Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No 2 with guest soloist Kristian Chong. Saint-Saens himself was a mightily gifted pianist and this is evident in the unrelenting virtuosity in each of his five piano concertos. The Second Concerto, the most popular, is somewhat unusually structured opening with what is essentially a slow movement, before settling into a brisk Mendelssohnian scherzo-like second movement, finally culminating in a whirlwind tarantella finale.
Kristian Chong has established a solid reputation as one of Australia’s leading pianists with a performance portfolio that embraces an enormous range of chamber repertoire, virtuoso concertos, as well as distinctive solo recitals that have taken him around the world. Chong quickly established why this is such a well-deserved reputation with the Bach-inspired solo cadenza that opens the concerto. His rich tone filled the Town Hall, realizing the broad quasi-improvised lines with an assured sense of soloistic élan that augured well for what was to follow. Chong brought an appropriately Gallic refinement to the remainder of the movement highlighting its elegance and lyricism. Light-fingered dexterity served Saint-Saens well in the second movement. Impeccable clarity enabled the nimble elfin-like textures to emerge effortlessly, and these contrasted well with the rambunctious swing of the second theme. The thrilling Presto finale was taken at break-neck speed, yet never threatened to fray at the edges, as both soloist and orchestra, each displaying technical assurance and rhythmic tautness, worked together in perfect unanimity of purpose, exploring the movement’s shifting moods and textures.
Chong gave a masterful reading of this popular concerto, and his complete control of the expressive and technical demands of this style leads one to hope to hear him at some later date in Saint-Saens’ Fourth Piano Concerto, a too-little-heard masterpiece. As a welcome encore, Chong gave a translucent reading of Rachmaninoff’s wistfully lyrical Prelude in G major.
After interval came the music of that most English of composers, Edward Elgar first in the form of Sospiri a string-based work that is tinged by unobtrusive harp and organ. With great delicacy and care, Northey brought out the painfully exquisite pathos of this pre WW1 composition. This was a first performance for the MSO – one can only wonder why, as it is a beautifully luxuriant and evocative work, one that has surely served as cinematic fare somewhere, sometime.
Without pause Northey led straight into the Enigma Variations, completed in 1899 when Elgar was in his forties, quickly establishing the international reputation that the composer had so long craved. Here Northey and the MSO were in their element. Conducting from a score that had linkages stretching back to Elgar himself, Northey led a finely wrought, well-paced reading, perfectly capturing the distinctively varied personalities of Elgar’s personal and professional acquaintances, each represented in their own individual variation. Haunting clarinet solos in the Romanza and persuasively eloquent cello lyricism in Variation XII proved to be highlights yet the real jewel in the crown in this performance came in the form of Nimrod. Emerging from a velvety hush and with one long, carefully sustained crescendo, this formed the emotional kernel of this large-scale work, and by movement’s end, chests were swelling throughout the Town Hall.
This was a performance to savour, perfectly suited to the environs, and the almost capacity audience responded accordingly, with enthusiasm and perhaps with a tinge of nostalgia.
Glenn Riddle heard Benjamin Northey conducting Enigma Variations. with Kristian Chong (piano) at the Melbourne Town Hall, Friday July 28, 2017.