The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s August 12 concert offered concertgoers an old-fashioned overture-concerto-symphony-style program, even if some of the pieces are more rarely encountered on concert programs these days. The concert opened with Elgar’s In the South (Alassio) and moved through Strauss’s early violin concerto before concluding with Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony.
Elgar’s mid-career Alassio was inspired by his stay in the town of the same name on the Italian Riviera. I think of myself as kindly inclined to Elgar’s music, but this work suffers from the same kinds of problems that afflict several of his extended instrumental works, including the symphonies. If their prolix and musically diffuse nature means that they often outstay their welcome, Elgar’s evident control, even mastery, of a certain type of orchestral colour generally means the wait through the longueurs is worth it. The orchestra gave as fine reading of this work as one could hope, and it is a mark of the kind of maturity that the orchestra has achieved under Sir Andrew Davies that this work, which seems a bit too often like sound and fury signifying nothing, gleamed with a burnished sheen in all the right places. Valuable contributions were made particularly by the heft and weight of the brass, but it was Christopher Moore’s playing in the viola ‘concerto’ in the centre of the work that was the real highlight. Moore has been the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s loss and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s gain, an invaluable member of the string section whose intelligent musicianship radiates from his every bow stroke.
James Ehnes (pictured) joined the orchestra for Strauss’ Violin Concerto. Ehnes gave what can only be called an exemplary performance of this work, with never a foot wrong — flawless intonation, intelligent interpretation, a careful riding of the line between passionate engagement and the kind of cool, detached and objective Classicism that Strauss was seeking, an obvious complete command of the score from solo part down. Although evidently warmly received around the time of its premiere, this is, however, such a profoundly tedious and derivative work that, frankly, in my view, it deserves the kind of oblivion into which it has fallen. In Ehnes’, it was in the best of all possible hands, but I cannot believe that any except the most devoted Strauss fan will ever want to hear it again.
The concert concluded with the perennially popular Italian Symphony by Mendelssohn, rounding out the Italianate theme set by Alassio at the concert’s opening. Again, this was a pitch-perfect if occasionally restrained performance, with particular credit due to the precision of the wind playing in the first movement. A performance marked with the kind of easy grace that much of Mendelssohn requires, the last movement could have done with slightly more south Italian fire; the reading the orchestra gave was precise, but lacked something of the precipitate danger that the music really required.