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Eastern European Accents

by Suzanne Yanko

The  first week of May brought connections with Eastern Europe, thanks to the MSO, visitors Duo Melange and Melbourne ensemble Anja & Zlatna. Yet each concert was distinctive and illustrated the richness of Melbourne’s musical offerings this autumn.

First was the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, with two concerts entitled Wigglesworth conducts Rachmaninov. The sub-text might well have been “Ashkar performs Mendelssohn”  – and or perhaps “Audience discovers A Freak in Burbank”. This work by contemporary Swedish composer, Albert Schnelzer, was the first and shortest work presented. An Australian premiere, this performance served to show the MSO’s ability to evoke a mood. (Although the composer was apparently influenced by Haydn, he reportedly admitted that Tim Burton – director of some dark and Gothic films -“more or less ‘took over’ during the compositional process”).

Schnelzer’s music, as played by the MSO under the careful direction of Mark Wigglesworth, had a slightly sinister from the outset, thanks partly to a staccato descending scale followed by a frenetic tutti sound. A repetitive motif was reminiscent of Philip Glass and there was some humour, with the winds – particularly flute – doing great work. A return to the early mood, with syncopation adding interest, and the entry of the brass had the work ending with overtones of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. But that may have just been my individual take on the music!

There was no such ambiguity about the work that followed – Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25 – nor its performance. A standard for the MSO, it was nevertheless a delight to hear it performed by Saleem Ashkar. Wigglesworth set quite a pace from the outset, which apparently did not disconcert the soloist; apart from a tiny moment when it seemed out of sync with the piano, the orchestra gave empathetic support. It was hard to take one’s eyes off the pianist – especially from a vantage point like mine that showed his fingers to be flying across the keys. With chromatic scales and octaves the order of the day, there was no let-up for Ashkar – even when the orchestra’s long development of the first movement might have been the composer’s focus.

A quite slow and contemplative piano passage, however, segued into the Andante, with Wigglesworth drawing sweetness from the orchestra and an almost Mozartian delicacy from the pianist. Akbar appeared absorbed by the lyricism of what he was playing, the music intensified by rich harmony as the orchestra entered. This was Mendelssohn at his most heart-stirring, especially when performed by such an ensemble. It was therefore literally a jarring note as the brass entry signalled the final movement, although the section quickly regained its balance. The dramatic finale thrilled the audience, which called for an encore. One of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words was the perfect choice for Akbar to show he was a sensitive interpreter of this composer’s music, as well as having a brilliant technique.

After interval came the Rachmaninov: his Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27. This was interesting programming, as the composer is more often represented on the concert stage by one of his piano concertos – and, indeed, it would be good to hear Akbar perform one of them. However, there was certainly no disappointment with the MSO’s rendition of the work, beginning with the almost ominous notes from the basses that led to the full string sound that characterised the work and contributed to its lushly Romantic effect.

The first movement had a pizzicato section that recalled folk music, and developed to a sound reminiscent of the movies (an intended connection with the Schnelzer, perhaps?). Wigglesworth had control of all elements, including solos from the horns and woodwinds and the heavily accented beats of the section. The development built to a spectacular climax, involving percussion and brass, then brief quiet to make way for the large complement of upper strings. The winds entry suggested quiet after a storm before yet another climax led to a staccato end.

The whole work was remarkable for its lush orchestral sound – never far away, even from the brisk scherzo, and beautifully realised in the Adagio of the third movement. Even the trombones were drawn into the languorous sound! Wigglesworth had the orchestra emphasise the change of mood in a reflective interlude before the all-out finale, with cymbals and tuba drawn in for effect.

This Rachmaninov work was new to many in the audience, and the general feeling was that the conductor and orchestra had done well to feature it in this program.

Towards the end of the week Russia was represented by one of its musicians, pianist Tamara Smolyar who performs with long-term friend, Czech-born violinist Ivana Tomaskova, as Duo Melange.  The duo presented A Night in Paris at the Melbourne Recital Centre, as part of the Local Heroes series in the Salon.

The program comprised an arrangement of Jean-Marie LeClair’s Sonata for violin & piano in D, Debussy’s Sonata for violin & piano in G minor and Sonata for violin & piano in A, Op.13, by Faure. The later works proved more suited to the acoustics of the Salon, as the piano overpowered the violin in the LeClair, written originally for a baroque keyboard.

The duo’s empathy with the works (and each other) was pleasing, as was their phrasing and technical ease. Despite some difficulties with the balance of the instruments in the space, the audience thoroughly enjoyed the performance and called for more, The encore, a charming Debussy waltz was the highlight of the night, being played with evident enjoyment and ease.

Rounding off the week was a Sunday afternoon concert, The Beautiful Balkans, at the Iwaki Auditorium as part of ABC Classic FM’s Sunday Live series. The ensemble Anja & Zlatna comprises Anja Acker & Kirsty Morphett (vocals) percussion Matt Stonehouse, double bass Andrew Tanner, flute Michael O’Connor and harpsichord Donald Nicolson. This unusual combination worked to produce a vivid and melodic concert of music from the Balkans, Serbia, Macedonia and Russia (with an unexpected brief stop-off in South America!).

With harmony intrinsic to these songs, the match of voices was a delight, as was the versatility of the four instrumentalists. Nicolson is better known for his performances with the baroque ensemble Latitude 37, but made a convincing case for the harpsichord as a vibrant accompaniment to the songs.

Whether it was a plaintive lament or a folk dance-inspired celebration, the singers brought depth and warmth to the mostly Slavic sound, often heard to advantage when sung a capella. O’Connor’s lively flute proved an ideal partner in “dialogue” while the rest achieved an exciting percussive sound.  Russian music ended the concert, and ranged from a languorous tango to a song so infectious that the audience was easily persuaded to clap along. The applause went on well after the music had ended!

Picture: Image from Anja & Zlatna CD cover

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